Golf gets yet another contender for title of dumbest rule ever
SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Wrong.
All of it.
Ditto for everyone involved.
The local rule that kept Dustin Johnson out of a playoff for the PGA Championship ... Johnson not bothering to read the rule book ... his caddie for not doing the same ... the rules officials who couldn't be bothered to walk over to that fateful patch of sand off the right side of the 18th fairway ... the marshals who didn't clear the fans from the bunker ... architect Pete Dye, who put so many of them on the course that no one knows the actual number ... Whistling Straits owner Herb Kohler, who gave him free rein ...
Take your pick.
There's no mystery why so few people take up golf, or why so many of them quit. It's the hardest game there is to play, and that's just for those of us who play it recreationally. Hit a ball into a hazard, onto a cart path or even a sprinkler head and half the time, you need Mr. Wizard to determine the exact spot from which to play your next shot. This isn't going to win the game any new fans.
Yes, a rule is a rule is a rule.
And yes, PGA officials posted the rule at every tee box and put it on a sign in the locker room explaining that, under local rules, every bowl of sand on the course is considered a bunker. That meant every single one, from the giant, finger-shaped sandbox that runs nearly the length of the 13th fairway to a few along the 18th that are barely bigger than a bathtub, and players should have known that grounding a club in any of them is a two-stroke penalty.
"I just thought it was on a piece of dirt the crowd had trampled down," said Johnson, who took his medicine admirably. "Never thought it was a sand trap. I looked at it a lot. Never once thought it was a bunker."
"I guess maybe I should have looked at the rules sheet," he added, "a little harder."
"You know, they showed us the sheet, it was on the sheet," said Nick Watney, who played with Johnson in the final pairing. "Honestly, I don't think anyone reads the sheets. I mean, we've played in hundreds of tournaments, we get a sheet every week. Like I said, I feel for him, I've never seen fans in a bunker with a player, so that was a little odd, I guess."
While there are over 1,000 bunkers pockmarking Whistling Straits — no one knows the actual number — only 100 or so are estimated to be in play when the pros compete here.
The bunker where Johnson's tee shot came to rest was well right of the 18th fairway; far enough, anyway, to be on the wrong side of the gallery rope. That explained why there were footprints and a fan's backpack sitting in it when he tried to play the shot and why the grassy edge that's supposed to demarcate the outline of the bunker was so trampled down Johnson assumed it was a footpath.
Spectators aren't allowed to walk on the fairways or greens during a tournament. But for all four days at Whistling Straits, they routinely traversed bunkers that were in play. Go figure. The gallery alongside the 18th couldn't.
As word spread that Johnson was facing a two-stroke penalty, chants of "Let him play!" and "Nonsense!" rocked the grandstand, accompanied by rhythmic clapping.
After six centuries of tinkering with the rule book, discarding some entries and refining others, golf has a new contender for the dumbest.
If you're addressing the ball when a gust of wind makes it wobble — even a millimeter — it's a one-stroke penalty. Try out a new driver on the practice range, stick it in the golf bag alongside the 14 clubs you're allowed to carry, then step on the course and never use it, that's still a two-stroke penalty for every hole played. Sign a scorecard with a wrong number on it — even though computers track not just every shot, but their length — and you're disqualified
Players have wound up on the wrong side of every one, not to mention dozens more, and Johnson losing his spot in a playoff that ended with Martin Kaymer beating Bubba Watson doesn't even qualify as the biggest injustice as a result.
That was almost certainly what happened to Roberto de Vicenzo at the 1968 Masters. He made a birdie 3 on the 17th hole at Augusta, but playing partner Tommy Aaron — a math major in college, no less — put down a 4 and de Vicenzo signed the card. The higher score stood and, instead of facing Bob Goalby in a playoff, the Argentine great wound up second.
What de Vicenzo said that day became one of the most famous quotes in sports. One that everyone involved in the fiasco at Whistling Straits — from Johnson on up to Kohler — should be required to write on a blackboard 100 times:
"What a stupid I am!"
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org