Monday, August 15, 2011

August 15, 2010: Rule 13.4

KOHLER, Wisc. - Nobody noticed it at the time. Nobody.

After a wayward second shot on the 18th hole, Dustin Johnson stood over his ball and thought about his options. He had a one-shot lead in the PGA Championship, thanks to birdies on 16 and 17, but this was no time to press his luck. A bogey, after all, got him into a playoff, and that was a much better fate than what would happen if he tried something stupid.

Johnson put his club behind the ball, the backed off, distracted by a shadow. He stepped up again and hit his shot. It was an absolute beauty, right on the green. He was putting for the win. And though he missed the par putt that would have given him the PGA Championship, his first major, he was able to walk off the green satisfied that he was one of three men in a playoff.

And then the rules official put his arm around his shoulders.

The Straits Course at Whistling Straits Golf Club is unlike any course you will find in Wisconsin. Pressed up against Lake Michigan, the course was designed like a traditional Scottish links course, with rolling hills, long grass, and bunkers galore. Many players playing it in 2010 might have thought they were playing the British Open all over again.

Aside from the numerous bunkers within the holes, the course had acres and acres of waste area, places where sand and grass mixed together with no real regard for boundaries. During the PGA Championship, this area was roped off, the domain of spectators, but that's where Johnson hit his fateful shot on the 18th hole. His ball landed in one of the sandy areas that wasn't really a bunker.

The problem, however, was that the PGA of America had determined that all these waste areas would be treated as bunkers during the championship. Most players didn't pay much attention to that ruling - after all, it certainly didn't affect how they would play the shot. But it had a major effect on the final results of the tournament.

Before Johnson backed away from the distracting shadow on the 18th hole, Johnson's wedge had hit the ground. In normal circumstances, this was no problem. But since all the waste areas were being treated as bunkers, he had broken a rule. Rule 13.4b, to be exact: A player may not "touch the ground in (a) hazard or water in (a) water hazard with his hand or a club." Since those areas had been declared bunkers, and since Johnson touched his club to the ground before hitting, he had committed a penalty.

Of course, it seems like a petty rule. Johnson, like many other players, didn't realize that all the waste areas were considered bunkers, so he didn't know he was breaking the rule. For those arguing that ignorance of the rules is no excuse for breaking them, it could be (easily) argued that he gained no advantage from grounding his club before hitting it. But a rule is a rule, and Johnson had to pay the price. In this case, it was steep: Instead of walking off the green to go prepare for a playoff, he was forced to take a two-shot penalty, dropping him to a tie for fourth place, out of the playoff.

Immediately, Johnson became a tragic figure. People couldn't believe a player had lost a major because of an inadvertent rules violation. Afterwards, more attention was paid to Johnson than to Martin Kaymer, the eventual winner, and Bubba Watson, who also played in the playoff. He became more famous for losing a major than Kaymer did for winning.

As it is, Johnson got done in by breaking a rule he didn't know he was breaking by doing something that nobody caught until they saw the replay on TV. It's not fair, but it's a part of the game. And he'll always be remembered not for how he won a tournament, but for how he lost one.

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