On Sunday, the difference between victory and defeat at the PGA Championship was as thin as a line in the sand.
It was a day when six golfers entered the last few holes within a single stroke of the lead, a day when a first-time major winner would achieve his life's dream. Germany's Martin Kaymer would win the tournament, but the story of the afternoon -- indeed, the story of the season -- would belong to Dustin Johnson.
As contender after contender fell just short, it appeared to be a day of redemption for Johnson, the 26-year-old American who had self-destructed on the final day of the U.S. Open just a few weeks ago.
Johnson had faced down almost every opponent this week and was within a stroke of winning his first major. But then he smacked hard against the PGA's rule book -- and that's a battle that nobody ever wins.
To set the stage: After 71 holes, Johnson led the PGA Championship by a single stroke. All he had to do was make par -- something he's probably done, oh, 50,000 times in his life -- and the major trophy was his.
But Johnson sent his tee shot wide right, deep into the gallery and that was where his troubles began.
CBS's Jim Nantz initially said that Johnson's tee shot went into "one of the thousands of bunkers that line this course," and that statement -- apparently forgotten in what would happen next -- would prove sadly prophetic.
Johnson approached his ball, which -- as you can see above -- was lying in a sandy mess amid a crowd of thousands. He stepped up, addressed the ball, backed away to ask that the crowd fill in the shadows falling on the ball and then swung away. Easy enough, right? He left the hillside to the cheers and backslaps of a thronging crowd.
One approach later, and Johnson faced a 6-foot putt to win the major. He pushed it ever so slightly and tapped in to prepare for a playoff with Kaymer and Bubba Watson.
But as he walked off the course, a rules official intercepted Johnson, put his hand on his shoulder, and informed him of some bad news: There was a problem with his shot out of the rough. Here, check the video:
Seems that there was a concern on the PGA's part that Johnson had actually been standing in a bunker when he hit that second shot, and prior to hitting it, he'd grounded his club -- which is a two-stroke penalty.
Following a lengthy, agonizing review in the clubhouse, the PGA rendered its decision: Johnson had indeed violated the rules by grounding his club, and his 5 on the scorecard was changed to a 7. Just like that, he went from standing over a putt to win a major to being sent home while others played on in the fast-setting Wisconsin sun.
It was an excruciating ruling, made so much worse by so many extenuating factors:
• The area Johnson was hitting from was as scrubby as an abandoned beach. There was sand there, yes, but there was also straw and the footprints of thousands of spectators.
• Speaking of the gallery -- in most tournaments, the gallery isn't permitted to stand in sand traps. Yet here they were, trampling down the edges of this and hundreds of other bunkers well outside the range of play.
• The purpose of the grounding rule is to prevent players from testing the consistency of the ground they're about to hit through. Johnson's grounding was more force of habit than test; no advantage was gained by the tiny scrape he put in the sand.
• There was apparently a PGA official walking with Johnson, according to several observers. It's not required for officials to remind players that they're in bunkers, but it would have been the polite thing to do ... if the official believed that was a bunker, that is.
• Johnson and his caddy apparently failed to even consider the possibility that they might be in a bunker, an oversight on their part that can't be rationalized away by blaming the PGA.
Bottom line, though, the PGA determined that Johnson had been in a bunker and he had indeed broken the rules. Like it or not, rules govern the game of golf. As Mark Wilson of the PGA's rules committee told CBS after the decision was rendered, "The No. 1 item on the local rules sheet [which all players and caddies receive] was that all of the areas of the course designed as bunkers would be played as bunkers. ... Although some of those areas outside the ropes may have changed from what a tour player might expect [to see in a bunker] ... Dustin, in this position, just didn't recognize that fact."
For his part, Johnson appeared shell-shocked. "Walking up there, it never once crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap," he said afterward. "The only worse thing that could have happened was if I made that putt [to win]."
He's right. Had he done that, this rules violation would have supplanted Roberto De Vicenzo's 1968 Masters mistake as the all-time worst. In that Masters, De Vicenzo's playing partner gave him an incorrect score on the 17th, and De Vicenzo didn't check the scorecard before signing it. Just as in this instance, the penalty knocked De Vicenzo out of a playoff; he responded with the immortal line, "What a stupid I am."
The PGA will take all kinds of heat for this ruling, with good reason -- the spirit of the rule and the letter are two different things entirely, and while Johnson violated the latter, he didn't violate the former. Following the rules -- or, put another way, grasping them the way a drowning man clutches at a life preserver -- is, to the letter of the law, the correct thing to do. There's nothing that can be done for Johnson now, but the PGA ought to look much more closely at the practical effects of its own rules, particularly the local ones that shift with each tournament venue.
Golf has enough problems with exclusion. Rules like the one that cost Johnson a shot at a major are designed to exclude, not include, and that is against the true spirit of golf.
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