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Should Dustin Johnson Have Won The PGA Championship?

Dustin Johnson Hits Out Of A Bunker On 18 At The PGA Championship
Photo: Getty Images

For everyone that missed the finish of yesterday’s dramatic PGA Championship, it will certainly be remembered for some time, especially when we speak of the “what if” scenarios and epic blunders in major championship golf. The record books will show that Germany’s Martin Kaymer won the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin.

Coming down the stretch on the back nine, Dustin Johnson made a birdie on the Par 3 17th hole to take a one shot lead to the 72nd hole. Previous to that, Bubba Watson made a great par on 18 and Kaymer also drained a great par saving putt on 18 to tie with Watson. With Watson and Kaymer watching, Dustin Johnson blocked his tee shot on 18 way right, into a trampled down sandy area. Thinking nothing of the fact that the area may have been one of the 1200 or so bunkers on the site, he grounded his club on the hard packed sand before playing his second shot. After a great chip shot from left of the green, he missed his par putt, which at the time he thought was to win the PGA Championship. So, thinking he was joining a three way playoff, he was accosted by a rules official from the PGA and informed that there was an issue. In the scoring room, he was informed and shown on video that he grounded his club in what was at one point a bunker and assessed a two stroke penalty under rule 13-4. The penalty strokes changed his score to 73, he obviously missed the playoff, and the rest is history.

In the aftermath of this incident, several questions remain: Should the trampled, sandy area really have been a bunker under the rules of golf? Should Johnson have been allowed to ground his club in it? Should Johnson have known better? Let me give you my thoughts on this controversial matter.

Should the trampled, sandy area really have been a bunker under the rules of golf?

This question is most open to debate. Some people say it should have been a waste area or just dirt, where you are permitted to ground a club. Others say even if it was a bunker it should have played like a waste area because people were standing in and around it and trampled it all to hell. Yet others have argued that the PGA Championship Committee should have marked all bunkers outside “the ropes” to be treated as waste areas. However, the PGA decided that all the maintained sandy areas were specifically designed as bunkers by course architect Pete Dye, and therefor would be treated as bunkers, meaning players were not allowed to ground the club. This included all bunkers, even if fans had trampled and strewn litter all around them. The PGA posted a “Supplementary Rules of Play” sheet in the player’s locker room and each player got the same rules sheet before play, and the first thing on the sheet was the rule on the bunkers:

1. Bunkers: All areas of the course that were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as bunkers (hazards), whether or not they have been raked. This will mean that many bunkers positioned outside of the ropes, as well as some areas of bunkers inside the ropes, close to the rope line, will likely include numerous footprints, heel prints and tire tracks during the play of the Championship. Such irregularities of surface are a part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions.

Note 1: The sand area in front, left and behind No. 5 green in the later water hazard is NOT a bunker (do not move stones).

Note 2: Where necessary, blue dots define the margin of a bunker.

Should Johnson have been allowed to ground his club in it?

This is an easy one, considering the above. No! Obviously under the rules you cannot ground your club in a hazard. There was a local rule in effect that stated pretty clearly that all the sandy areas designed as bunkers would be treated as hazards, so there is no exceptions to this one. Some have suggested the rules official walking with his group should have warned him, but they are not allowed to interject and tell people what they can and can’t do. The only way a rules official can get involved is when the players specifically ask for them about rules issues. For example – The official can’t speak out and say “Hey Justin, make sure you don’t ground your club there, it’s a bunker!”, but if Justin had called him over and asked if he was in a bunker the official would have quoted the local rules and informed him that he was indeed in a bunker and to proceed under the rules as such.

Should Johnson have known better?

Sadly, I feel Dustin Johnson should have known better than to ground his club in that sand on the 18th hole. Along with most of the television viewers, I hated to see Johnson’s major championship hopes end with a rules infraction, and to his credit he handled the whole situation with class and maturity, unlike some other young players who clearly could have learned something from him. However, Johnson should have known better than to ground his club in that sand. Playing tournament golf for years has taught me one thing – When in doubt, don’t ground the club. Even so, would I have grounded the club had I been in his place? Probably. It’s a damn shame that things had to happen the way they did, but the bottom line is Dustin Johnson had every opportunity to read the local rules sheet and did not. He could have called the official over and did not. He could have decided not to ground his club and did not. He deserves the penalty strokes he got, and he knows it.

Dustin Johnson deals with dissapointment at the US Open
Photo: Newscom

You may recall Johnson was leading the US Open at Pebble Beach earlier this summer before clearly caving under the pressure and shooting a round in the 80s on Sunday and fading into the pack. The media wondered if and how he would learn from that bitter disappointment, and he showed us on Sunday. He used his experience at the US Open to play steady golf at the PGA and give himself a putt to win. He’s shown that he can overcome disappointments at major championships, and I think he’ll win one some day. He’ll need to overcome it pretty quick, because the silver lining in this story is that he’s guaranteed a spot on Corey Pavin’s Ryder Cup squad later this summer.

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6 thoughts on “Should Dustin Johnson Have Won The PGA Championship?

  • Can’t argue with your thoughts, John, but there are two underlying issues… First: The crowd gathered around his ball may have prevented Johnson and his caddie from realizing the ball was in a bunker (it is pretty obvious that it is a bunker in photos of the area taken when no people are standing there). Even the TV commentators did not notice that it was a bunker. Second: the PGA rules officials decision to treat every bunker on the course as a bunker was flawed. In the spirit of the game, a player should not have to hit out of a bunker that has been trampled on by hundreds of people. The PGA could have easily avoided the problem by allowing players to ground their clubs in any bunkers outside the ropes. I would bet that a few other players grounded their clubs in places where they shouldn’t have by not realizing they were in a bunker.

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  • John Duval

    Good points Dave, but with a rules official walking with every group, Dustin could easily have asked the official if he was in a bunker, but because of the situation he probably was so focused on trying to win a PGA Championship that the thought never occured to him.

    As far as not having to hit from a trampled bunker – he was much better off with a clean, flat lie than if it had been raked. As it was he was able to reach the green. Had the ball been sitting in soft, raked sand he would probably have had to lay up. Doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have made par that way however!

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Freddie Kong

    Dave another good article and food for thought. Having been around this game my entire life I have several views on this topic.
    According to the rules of the game and local rules there is no arguement in favor of Dustin Johnson. He grounded his club in the hazard and should have incurred the two strokes.

    There are a few questions I have. If all the 1200 bunkers were in play, why in the world would the PGA allow fans to stand and trample a third of them for an entire week? In no other tournment does the PGA allow such a rule to come into play. Granted if the player blows it over the patrons heads then he has play the ball where ever it lands. 99% of the time this is just trampled grass or a crosswalk. But I have yet to see fans park themselves in bukers or waste bunkers.

    Why would Dustin play a driver off the 18th tee with his length? A long iron or 3W would have been plenty of club to put him into a positive position to score or make par. I feel sorry for him because of the ruling, but everyone seems to forget he put himself there with a poor club choice. Just because you have the power, doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time.

    Thinking your away around the golf course is more than half the battle. At their level they all swing the club very well and they all know how to score. But what sets The greats apart from the others in the gray matter between their ears.

    It’s a shame because DJ has had more oppurtunities to win majors than most guys will get to win a tour event. Two in the same year are generally reserved for the PMs and TWs of the world. DJ played in the final group in two major in the same year and came up short both times. Who knows he may bounce back or maybe he will listen to all the talking heads and never recover. I hope he brushes this aside and makes a name for himself insteed or a story for the doubters.

  • The Golf Channel had a thorough interview with the tournament’s head rules official last night during which he explained a lot of the reasons why the rules for this event were the way they were. In the end, I agree with John. Dustin Johnson wasn’t the victim of a lousy call yesterday. Rather, he was the victim of one of golf’s “bad bounces”. The only thing that can be said is that had he or his caddy bothered to read the rules sheet, it may have occurred to them that the area they were hitting from might very well be a bunker.

    Jim Dauer

  • B Sauter

    A couple of things… Before they went to a commercial break after Johnson’s drive in that bunker, the announcer said he was in a bunker, so they new. Also, you can see a woman sitting on the huge lip of that bunker right in front of Johnson.

    AND an official can tell a player that he’s in a bunker. The Golf Channel showed a clip of Rocco Mediate about to pick up a ball that rolled out of a drop zone. The only reason he didn’t incur a penalty is because the official told him not to pick up his ball.

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