That little patch of earth isn’t the same.
The golf gods have touched it, anointed it as one of the game’s major championship landmarks.
History runs hard through the 18th hole at Whistling Straits now, through the infamous bunker atop the hill above the fairway, through the sand where Dustin Johnson controversially lost the PGA Championship in the final round last year.
Though no plaque marks the exact spot where Johnson was penalized for grounding his club, it wouldn’t radiate a stronger aura today if a tombstone were planted there.
That bunker is now one of those historic places you look for when you visit a famous course, a monument of memory marking where something important in the game was won or lost, or where momentum in a compelling run was won or lost.
It’s there in history with Carnoustie’s Barry Burn, where we remember Jean Van de Velde wandering barefoot with his pant legs rolled up and his wits rattled when he blew a chance to win the British Open a dozen years ago. The Whistling Straits bunker is there with landmarks that remind us of pivotal turning points, of golf shots, both good and bad, that altered major championship history. It’s there with other landmarks where powerful emotions are attached, like the patch of fairway at Merion’s 18th where Ben Hogan was famously photographed hitting a 1-iron that helped him to go on and win the U.S. Open in 1950.
Or the patch of deep grass aside the 17th hole at Pebble Beach where Tom Watson chipped in to help him beat Jack Nicklaus in the U.S. Open in ’82.
Nearly a year has passed since Johnson wandered into that bunker at Whistling Straits, oblivious to the nature of the lie that would be his undoing with so many spectators crowded into the bunker with him. Still, all these months later, the debate continues at Whistling Straits, erupting anew nearly every day. The debate’s renewed with each new set of resort guests who pass through for the first time.
Should that patch of sand on the hill really have been played as a bunker?
Should Johnson have known better?
“Our play slows a little bit at the 18th because players coming past that area always want to go up and see it,” said Herb Kohler, the founder/owner of Whistling Straits. “It’s not directly in play, so you have to climb the dunes a little bit to find the bunker. It’s there in a field of bunkers. It’s not marked, but the caddies know it, and people want to traipse up there and look at it.”
When Whistling Straits opened for public play three days after the PGA Championship, there was an immediate buzz among guests wanting to see the bunker and assess for themselves whether the PGA made the right call.
“You had people coming into the clubhouse asking, ‘Hey, can I see the bunker from here?’” O’Reilly said.
Even resort guests who don’t play the course want to see the bunker.
“We give a lot of tours of the property, and, typically, we get the question: ‘Can we see the bunker?’” Whistling Straits head golf professional Mike O’Reilly said.
When caddies guide guests to the Dustin Johnson bunker, the debate over the ruling typically re-engages.
“You have people who saw it on TV, who didn’t think it looked like a bunker,” O’Reilly said. “They see it when they visit, and they think it’s clear it is a bunker. You have other people who say, ‘Yeah, but why do you have spectators walking through bunkers?'
“There are people who believe he should have known, the rules were posted, he should have checked the rules. You still hear pretty mixed opinions about it to this day.”
Kohler was adamant in the wake of last year’s PGA Championship finish that the right ruling was made. He still believes that.
“The notices about those bunkers were publicized, all over the place, all over the locker rooms and elsewhere,” Kohler said. “Dustin and his caddie had every opportunity in the world to read those notices, but it didn’t register, or at least it didn’t register in that crucial moment.”
In the end, Kohler understands that in just two major championship finishes, Whistling Straits has built some powerfully history.
“What happened is part of the lore of the championship now,” Kohler said.
And that bunker at the 18th is among the game’s historic landmarks.