Not long after Dustin Johnson signed for an 8-over 80 – the highest score during the Shell Houston Open first round – then withdrew from the tournament without an immediate reason, my phone buzzed.
On the other end was a PGA Tour player. He didn’t want his name used in print and was calling just to vent, but his message came across loud and clear.
“I guess when anybody shoots 80 now,” he said, “they can WD and come up with an excuse or an injury.”
This player quickly followed by insisting he didn’t know anything about Johnson’s possible injury/illness status. He wasn’t implicating him as part of any ploy to simply take his ball and go home, cutting his losses after a round that included two double-bogeys on his first four holes, a quintuple-bogey on the sixth and a career-worst front-nine 43.
He did, however, point out that this strategy is part of an ongoing epidemic. In fact, he even used that exact word. Epidemic. So did another player via text message, independent of the first.
The message was evident: There is a large faction of players who are dubious of a few of their well-known peers.
Part of the problem lies within the current PGA Tour rules.
Competitors who withdraw during a tournament round must, eventually, provide a valid medical excuse. Those who withdraw after posting a score need no explanation.
In a way, it’s much like another hot-button issue: Slow play. If there is no direct penalty – and other than fines and warnings, there hasn’t been one for slow play in nearly two full decades – then there’s no motivation to avoid it.
When Rory McIlroy, already 7 over and sure to miss the cut, walked off the course midway through last year’s Honda Classic second round he cited a toothache. Two weeks ago, Bubba Watson blamed allergies as his reason for withdrawing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational following an opening-round 83. Johnson, who trailed by 15 strokes when he made his decision on Thursday, isn’t required to provide a reason. (Update: On Friday morning, Johnson's agent David Winkle texted: "Just a little stiffness in his back. Nothing serious, just being very careful so he's ready to roll next week.")
The underlying effect is that it harms the tournament host. As the player who called me said, “It may hurt the Tour a little with these WDs. But it hurts the title sponsor and local fans even more – especially if you’re a big draw for the event.”
The problem here, of course, is that nobody besides the player understands his level of pain or discomfort. So just as it’s irresponsible for a professional golfer to pack it in when things aren’t going his way, it’s similarly irresponsible to contend anyone is crying wolf.
While it might look suspicious on the surface, a devil’s advocate may contend that it could prove to be the right move. With the opening round of the Masters just seven days away, Johnson might have seen an opportunity to recuperate from a lingering injury or illness – or maybe just get another day of R&R before the year’s biggest tournament. If sacrificing another round in Houston while far off the cut line means he’ll be better prepared to claim a green jacket next week, is that so wrong? Well, according to many of his brethren, it is.
However, without a rule in place requiring a medical explanation for post-round withdrawal, the PGA Tour is basically issuing a bottomless get-out-of-jail-free card.
The current policy leaves plenty of room for doubt. We can impugn players for a perceived lack of effort, but maintaining that any are faking these symptoms is a weighty accusation.
Following his withdrawal at the Honda Classic last month, there was a camp of observers who believed this was the case with Tiger Woods. Well out of contention during the final round, Woods withdrew with five holes remaining because of a lingering back injury.
Those who accused him of milking it, though, found themselves eating crow this week, when Woods announced that he’d recently undergone back surgery to alleviate the issue and will miss the upcoming Masters and beyond.
Similarly, fellow elite talents Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Hunter Mahan have recently been forced to withdraw from tournaments with ailments that, according to them, inhibited their performances.
It is important to note that even though the word “epidemic” has been tossed around, there remains an infinitesimal amount of players whose withdrawals can be considered suspicious.
Many still consider it a matter of pride to soldier on, no matter the consequences.
During the Honda last month, Brendon de Jonge raced to a 66-64 start. He then suffered a painful rib injury that led to a disappointing 76-78 weekend finish. But he did finish.
“I thought about it right at the turn on Sunday, but I figured it wasn’t getting any worse,” he said a few days later. “I didn’t feel like I was damaging it. But I’ve never withdrawn and I’d like to keep it that way.”
That’s a popular opinion within PGA Tour circles. It’s difficult to know an exact percentage, but unquestionably the majority of players feel a sense of pride toward gutting it out and continuing to compete – no matter their score, no matter their injury status.
That was the main theme of the phone call I received Thursday evening. This player didn’t like the idea that players could withdraw after a poor score without a legitimate excuse.
He’s hardly in the minority.