Nightmare Scenario


“If you need someone to blame throw a rock in the air, you’ll hit someone guilty.”


In the hectic hours following Dustin Johnson’s major miscue at Whistling Straits, the media searched doggedly for a scapegoat while the PGA of America likely strained a rib muscle trying to find a fix for an utterly unfixable situation.

Neither party was successful.

The blame game started with David Price, the walking scorer with Johnson’s group on Sunday who was strangely absent from the proceedings considering the gravity of the situation and the looming possibility that one of Whistling Straits’ 1,200 or so bunkers would mar an otherwise memorable championship.

“You’ve got to say something to him,” said Jim Duncan, a veteran PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour rules official. “If I was a walking official I would have said on the first tee, guys please use caution and ask me.”

Not that Duncan has any interest in Monday morning officiating. Far from it, in fact he calls Price one of the best rules officials in the business. Duncan’s observation is more of a warning than a judgment.

Those who want to criticize Price or the PGA are oversimplifying, or worse overanalyzing.

dustin johnson whistling straits pga
Dustin Johnson hits what turned out to be his fourth shot on the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship. (Getty Images)
“Of course I would have said something,” said Mike Davis, the U.S. Golf Association’s senior director of rules and competitions. “But a lot of times I would have been up trying to clear the crowds, you can’t always be there. It’s like a nightmare scenario. None of this is good for the Rules of Golf.”

Those who say the fix is simple – just make anything inside the ropes a hazard, as defined by the Rules of Golf, and everything outside a waste area – have not spent enough time studying the rule book.

“We did everything the PGA did (for the 2007 U.S. Senior Open at Whistling Straits),” said Davis, who met with his PGA counterpart Kerry Haigh before the 2004 PGA at Whistling Straits and agreed that all 1,200 of Pete Dye’s pits should be played as hazards. “Every bunker was treated as a bunker, as it should be.”

The inside/outside the ropes delineation won’t work for numerous reasons. What if a rope line crosses through a bunker? Or if a rope is moved before a player gets to his golf ball? In Rules of Golf speak this would be considered a “broken arrow” option, unquantifiable and unworkable.

“You are opening a can of worms doing something other than what they did this year,” Duncan said.

Ultimately, it was Johnson who made the mistake, however innocently, and to his youthful credit he never tried to water that reality down. But that does little to assure this doesn’t happen in 2015 when the PGA Championship returns to the converted Wisconsin pasture.

The blame game may soothe our manic souls and calm a collective nausea, but is a blatant waste of energy. This is not a Dustin Johnson problem or a Rules of Golf problem or a PGA of America problem.

If you want to blame someone go after Pete Dye, the architectural sadist in grandfather’s clothing. He created the faux links land, with the blessing of golf Herb Kohler, and all those sandy blemishes on an otherwise enchanting seascape.

They have towering dunes on Ireland’s greatest golf courses, they just don’t dot them with ornamental and problem-causing bunkers. Nor do they pack them with 40,000 fans during a major championship.

But then even Dye gets a partial pass considering that Whistling Straits is not entirely unique in its propensity for sandy question marks. Duncan pointed out that Kiawah Island in South Carolina – site of the 2012 PGA and another Dye design, by the way – is canvassed with bunkers that are even less defined than those at Whistling Straits.

When we reached Davis on Wednesday he was preparing for next week’s U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., the site of the 2015 U.S. Open.

“We have an even more complicated issue with all the sand,” said Davis, who was watching Sunday’s PGA and nearly texted Haigh when he saw the infraction. “We have these sandy areas that just sort of transition to bunkers.”

There are, essentially, only two ways to be sure Johnson the proper noun doesn’t become Johnson a verb – as in he Johnson’ed his second shot and lost the tournament: Remove Whistling  Straits from the major rota, which would get our vote, or let grass grow over all those largely ornamental sand pits that simply welcome this kind of confusion.

“This is not a Rules of Golf issue, it is an issue that deals with the architecture of Whistling Straits,” Davis said. “It’s just a very unique golf course that when you put it under big tournament conditions it is a very demanding situation.”

On Sunday amid the muted celebration of Martin Kaymer’s celebration neither Kohler nor Dye had any interest in cleaning up the sandy clutter that led to heartbreak for Johnson and heartache for the PGA of America.

“It’s what should have happened,” Kohler said.

A few days before the PGA Championship we had a chance to speak with Kohler about the evolution of his lakeside gem and reflect on the ’04 championship. One comment, given Sunday’s drama, drove us back to the notebook.

“(Haigh’s) comfort level grew dramatically from the first day to the last day in 2004,” Kohler said.

We have to wonder, how comfortable is Haigh now?