SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Has golf ever felt more dirty than it did with the sun sinking over Whistling Straits Sunday near the end of the PGA Championship?
I mean literally dirty. Because the PGA Championship was decided in the dirt Sunday at Whistling Straits.
OK, technically, it was decided in the sand, but if you were among the more than 100,000 fans who walked over and around the hillocks and bunkers on this course, you know it’s hard to tell where the dirt begins and the sand ends. There are, after all, more than 1,000 bunkers sprawling through the wispy fescue grasses there.
If you are Dustin Johnson, it probably all seems like manure now.
Because the end of this PGA Championship stunk.
It’s fitting that Johnson marched to the locker room to take a shower before coming out to speak with media after one of golf’s quirky rules cost him a shot at the championship. While Johnson cleaned up nicely, the sport’s going to have a hard time washing out the stain this leaves. Because as accustomed as we’ve become to golf’s mysteriously complex rules affecting outcomes, this was different.
This was a local rules decision that rings as a loco rule now. That’s loco, as in crazier than a golf course allowing thousands of fans to sit in and walk through “bunkers” that are IN play.
Johnson was penalized two shots at the 72nd hole of the championship for grounding his club in a bunker that he didn’t know was a bunker.
And who could blame him for not knowing? Dozens of people were sitting in that “bunker” before his ball came to rest among them.
After finding his ball on the hillside and blowing his approach left of the 18th green, Johnson missed a 6-foot putt for par that he thought could have won him his first major championship. Victory would have been a sweet remedy for the pain he felt blowing the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open last June. His final-round 82 at Pebble Beach would be remembered differently with a victory at Whistling Straits. And, still, even after missing his putt for par Sunday, Johnson believed his bogey had earned him a spot in a playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.
Johnson, 25, believed he still had his shot at redemption until rules official David Price stopped him as he left the green to explain that he might face a penalty for grounding his club in a bunker.
“Somebody that saw it on TV called in,” Price said after Johnson marched into the scoring office. “Hopefully, he didn’t do it.”
The scene was crazy outside the old stone clubhouse. CBS roving reporter Peter Kostis scrambled through some bushes to peer into the window to get a glimpse of Johnson and the rules officials as they reviewed the footage. A CBS cameraman was squeezed up to the window, too, beaming the images around the world. Dozens of reporters were jammed together behind Kostis trying to see what he was seeing.
And as all of this was unfolding, thousands of fans jammed along the 18th hole were chanting: “Let him play! . . . Let him play!”
Johnson, of course, wouldn’t get to play.
“I just thought I was on a piece of dirt that the crowd had trampled down,” Johnson said later. “I never thought I was in a sand trap. It never once crossed my mind that I was in a bunker. Obviously I know the Rules of Golf, and I can't ground my club in a bunker.”
This may be the most heart-wrenching application of golf’s rules since Roberto De Vicenzo lost the Masters because he signed for an incorrect scorecard.
Stumbling out of the scoring area at Augusta National in 1968, De Vicenzo uttered the famous line: “What a stupid I am.”
Johnson could have uttered a variation of that line. He could have said: “How stupid is golf?”
There will be debate about this, because players were clearly informed that all the sandy waste areas on the course were considered bunkers.
“We made it the No. 1 item on our local rules sheet, simply to explain that all of the bunkers that were designed and built as sand bunkers on this golf course would be played that way,” Mark Wilson, the co-chairman of the PGA rules committee, said. “And that might mean that many areas outside the ropes might contain many footprints, heel prints, or even tire tracks from golf cars or other vehicles.'
Wilson said a notice was also posted in the locker room cautioning players that all the sandy areas were bunkers.
“This is a unique course with unique characteristics and I think the dilemma is that it's even harder to say some of these are not bunkers and some of them are, because then how do you define those?” Wilson said. “And then a player would be essentially treading on thin ice almost every time he entered a sandy area, wondering where he was. And with 1,200 of them, there's no way to confirm with each player exactly where he lays.”
Wilson was eloquent in his explanation of the difficulty that would occur in trying to distinguish what is and isn’t a bunker on this course, but the fact of that matter is that the PGA was as confused as Johnson was when they first brought the major here in 2004. Originally, the PGA intended to differentiate between the bunkers inside the ropes and outside the ropes. The PGA considered treating those bunkers outside the ropes like waste areas. But officials changed their minds shortly before the championship.
“I don't know, if it was up to me, I wouldn't have thought I was in the bunker, but it's not up to me,” Johnson said.
That’s the whole point, though. If players can’t even tell they’re in a bunker, something’s wrong. If fans are walking and sitting in them, how can they be bunkers?
There is plenty of blame to go around for the unsatisfying ending. Johnson gets his share for admitting he did not read the local rule. For many, he loses their sympathy saying that. You wonder, though, even if he did, would he have known he was in a bunker.
Still, in a cruel way, it was fitting that this championship season should end with a deep discussion of dirt. It started that way with Tiger Woods the biggest story at the Masters and tabloids slinging dirt into the game’s biggest storyline.
This major championship starts the way it ended. It leaves you with the feeling you need a bath.