KOHLER, Wis. – It was sunset on Sunday at Whistling Straits, and the serene blue-orange beauty of an August evening belied the chaos that jolted the PGA Championship only two hours earlier.
A bearded man in a blue blazer walked away from the 18th green alone, pausing only briefly. Herb Kohler, the billionaire owner of this wondrous and wacky golf course, the man who wanted fescue and dunes and yes, hundreds and hundreds of bunkers all over his faux-Irish Cheeseland jewel, pondered the fate of poor Dustin Johnson and the now-famous bunker on the hill off the 18th fairway.
"I love 'em," Kohler said of the more than 1,200 bunkers at Whistling Straits.
That one of the trampled-down bunkers could be mistaken for a waste area in the blurry rush of a 72nd major championship hole, and wound up marring a dramatic finish, how about that as his golf course's legacy?
"I'm certainly not ashamed," Kohler said.
As for Johnson grounding his club in what he thought was a waste area? "He knew the rules," Kohler said, before zipping off in a golf cart.
Only, Dustin Johnson didn't know the rules.
In a major championship ending that both highlighted golf's unbending and admirable devotion to the rule of law, or highlighted Whistling Straits' unorthodox layout and semi-obscure and unfair local rules, poorly applied – depending on your world view – Johnson lost his chance at a playoff with Bubba Watson and eventual PGA champion Martin Kaymer. He lost it when he was informed after his final stroke on 18 by walking rules official David Price that he had grounded his club in the hazard as he prepared to hit his second shot. At the time, Johnson held a one-stroke lead over Watson and Kaymer.
On TV, Johnson's ball only appeared to be in a dusty patch of real estate, not a traditional, well-sculpted bunker. In person, Johnson felt only the adrenaline of the moment and never stopped to think that this sandy sculpture might be a bunker, even if fans stood in it, and that he should not ground his club.
When it was over, when he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding, and his bogey 5 was made a triple-bogey 7, he was out of the playoff. His incredible summer of drama, playing his way into the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open at Pebble, only to shoot 82, and playing his way out of a playoff at the PGA Championship, missing an 8-foot putt for the ostensible win, left Johnson as both a rising star and a tragic figure.
Let the barstool debate begin: Was Dustin Johnson a victim of his own carelessness? Or should he have been aided by a rules official – or caddie – who could have intervened? Is Whistling Straits guilty of being too gimmicky and presenting confusing scenarios, like bunkers trampled by fans? Or should every competitor know the golf course he plays, all its idiosyncrasies before he competes?
What is undeniable is this: Johnson was unaware of the local rule, and that is inexcusable.
"It never once crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap," he said, after showering and emerging from the locker room. "I just thought I was on a piece of dirt that the crowd had trampled down."
Johnson possessed an impressive calm about him as he spoke to a handful of reporters. He'd changed into a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. No tears were shed, no clubs broken, no locker room doors attacked. Behind him, on the big-screen TV, Kaymer and Watson played for the Wanamaker Trophy.
One got the sense we were listening to the Nuke LaLoosh of golf, a player both supremely gifted and unencumbered by deep thought. If anything, it speaks to Johnson's strong chances to bounce back from this mess. He gave the air of a guy who might forget it all by Wednesday.
And yet, inside the locker room behind him, damning evidence hung. An 8x11 sheet of paper was taped to the end of the locker stalls, easy to see.
The verbiage hurts Johnson's case:
"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."
The language is free of ambiguity, the posting of the sheet in clear view.
And yet, the truth didn't stop players from feeling Dustin Johnson's pain. Zach Johnson, who finished one stroke shy of the playoff, offered sympathy in the locker room.
"Sucks, man," Zach Johnson said.
Dustin Johnson, in that oddly carefree way of his, answered to Zach: "What really would have sucked is if I made that putt on 18."
Had Dustin Johnson made that par putt, he would have been crowned PGA champion – then lost the title on the post-round ruling.
Others, rallying to the side of Johnson, as players do sometimes when a comrade aches, tweeted their thoughts.
"I like Dustin Johnson," Stewart Cink tweeted. "It's too bad. Maybe Whistling Straits should rethink some of those obscure bunker-ish features."
Tweeted Ian Poulter: "I didn't see any notice in the locker room, but I wasn't looking for them. They may have been there."
Added John Daly, via Twitter: "So, a sandbar off Lake Michigan considered a bunker too if that's what they're sayin'–"
Others knew the rule and hesitated to roast Johnson in his moment of pain.
"I'd rather not," said Tim Clark, who finished tied for 39th, when asked to comment. "It's tough."
Did he know the local rule?
"It's posted inside," Clark said, before deferring: "I don't want to comment too much."
And then, this damning moment from Dustin Johnson himself, admitting error.
"Maybe I should have looked to the rule sheet a little harder."
Just when the mountain of opinion begins to build against sympathy for Johnson, the other side of the brain begins to fight back.
Where, it can be asked, was rules official David Price to remind Johnson, or Johnson's caddie, Bobby Brown, about the unique nature of Whistling Straits, that bunkers can be trampled by fans and still be considered hazards?
Surely, when heart rates are pumping, and major championships are speeding to a finish, a rules official can give a nudge, or a suggestion, to save Johnson embarrassment. It's a fair question, and the PGA of America, surely, should take some of the heat.
Except, it won't.
"The walking official is there designed to help the player and answer the player's question," said Mark Wilson, co-chairman of the PGA of America rules committee. "But the walking official in stroke play is not there to strategize every player's stroke, or hover over a player who is making a stroke. These are experienced tour players who, by and large, know the rules."
And then there is the question of logistics. When history looks back on the Great Dustin Johnson Bunker Caper, the facts of geography and human traffic will loom large. Thousands of fans were camped on that line of hills where Johnson's drive landed, and it almost took a fire alarm-styled evacuation of hundreds of them to clear the way for Johnson to find his ball. The foot traffic both obscured the nature of the bunker, making its features hard to discern, and made Johnson's line of sight to the green difficult to clear. Even CBS' David Feherty only stayed briefly at the scene, as rowdy fans chanted his name and made it uncomfortable for him to linger.
The PGA of America cited the logistical hassle as a factor for lack of clarity on the rule from the walking official Price.
"[Price] certainly would have jumped in," Wilson said. "Under the circumstances, with that many people over there, it was hard."
So the problem of the crowds prevented clear communication between Johnson and the official? The walking official couldn't scale the hill because he didn't want to "hover?" That sounds awfully thin.
"If the walking official can prevent a breach of the rules, he will," Wilson said. "But under the circumstances it was hard enough to get the player over there."
Golf may be a high-falutin' world of blue blazers and worship of The Rules, but let's be honest: That's some weak sauce.
This is not to excuse Johnson. Ultimately, the blame falls to him. One would think that a golfer playing for immortality would take time to learn local rules, just as he would learn the shape and bend of the greens or flagstick placements each day.
You got the sense that a legendary golf champion, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, would never find himself in this mess. And yet, the same qualities that allowed Dustin Johnson to shrug off his Sunday 82 at Pebble Beach and come back to nearly win a major two months later, are the same qualities that make you figure he'll be a monster in the majors come 2011.
Plus, the man's distance, touch and imagination can border on the epic. And he's only 26.
Two hours later, in the gorgeous late summer gloaming, beyond where Kohler walked, a handful of fans still hung around the bunker, not wanting to leave. It had almost become an instant monument in golf history, "The Spot Where Dustin Johnson Grounded His Club," the golf equivalent of Jim Morrison's gravesite, visited by pilgrims.
One fan grabbed a handful of sand and put it in a Ziploc bag, to take home for safekeeping. Two brothers, Ben and Andy Fredrick of Appleton, Wis., drew a circle around the spot where Johnson's ball was, making photos easier for amateur historians. They were almost caretakers of the ground, curators. One of them said he drew the circle for fans to see and was proud of his work.
The bunker, in plain view, looks too bunker-ish to be mistaken for anything else. There's even a lip to it and a shape. Johnson himself, if he went out to see it again, would have to agree.
And yet the Fredrick brothers felt sympathy for him, saying the moment was intense and rushed and "chaotic," with people everywhere, the hillside densely populated, the features hard to discern. They remembered the rules official offering only one piece of advice, asking Johnson if he needed more people out of the way to hit his shot.
A silence hung in the air, the fans staring at the sandy spot. Nobody would forget the sight anytime soon.