Rub of the Green


2010 PGA ChampionshipSHEBOYGAN, Wis. –  A pitcher for the Detroit Tigers lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning earlier this year, solely because of an umpire's missed call. Is that an outrage? Absolutely. An injustice? Only in a subjective context – flubbed judgment is an indictment of the process, not the man who made the mistake.

Dustin Johnson lost his spot in a three-hole playoff at the PGA Championship because he grounded his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole. No less a crying shame, but accountability is the issue here. In a game that claims to police itself, the system failed miserably.

In golf, we boast righteousness and morality one minute, then blame everyone but the guilty party for the sake of convenient rationale the next. Anything other than an emotional verdict tells us Johnson messed up. Upon finding his ball in sand right of the 18th fairway, his first responsibility should have been to clarify his rights as a competitor before striking his next shot.

“It never crossed my mind that I was in a bunker,” Johnson would say. “I just thought I was on a piece of dirt the crowd had trampled down.”

This qualifies as an assumption, and you know what they say about those who assume. Before the tournament began, the PGA of America released a rules sheet explicitly addressing the exact conditions that resulted in Johnson's two-stroke penalty. According to the provision, texture, definition and footprints all were rendered irrelevant. The field staff overseeing the tournament obviously thought long and hard about the sandy areas at Whistling Straits before making its decision, and when a decision was made, it was transmitted in the clearest of terms. There was no ambiguity involved in the process.

Still, sympathists will continue to take issue over the fact that Johnson’s ball came to rest in an area filled with spectators, and that people who come out to watch major championships shouldn’t be allowed to stand in bunkers. No argument there, but a lot of passages in the Rules of Golf don’t seem to make sense, and any local addendum such as this is sure to raise eyebrows. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t posted. That doesn’t mean ignorance serves as a viable excuse.

Frankly, I wish Johnson had been allowed to compete in the playoff. I picked him to win on the Golf Channel’s pregame show and found justice in the notion that he put himself in position to win Sunday after his final-round meltdown at the U.S. Open. I’m guessing more people would have been pulling for him than for Martin Kaymer or Bubba Watson, but rooting interests are a personal matter, unrelated to the regulations designed to uphold the premise of competitive equity.

It sounds unduly harsh only because it is. In a classic head-vs.-heart debate, a procedural action often clashes with the emotional reaction, which does nothing to alter the division between wrong and right. Dustin Johnson broke a rule, and on the 72nd hole of the year’s final major, he paid a very high price, but not because the rule was stupid or poorly conceived. Only because he played so well on the previous 71.