For such a staid game, golf can sure make the blood boil. Send a drive sailing smoothly into the deep dark woods, and you suddenly become possessed with the urge to hurl your driver in after it. Yip a 3-foot putt, and you can unleash a torrent of curses that'll have the bikers from "Sons of Anarchy" telling you to watch your mouth. And this extends even off the course too; one need only look at any of the posts we write about Tiger Woods to see how ridiculously unhinged some people, pro- and anti-Tiger, can get about a guy they've never met, and likely will never meet in person.
So it's not surprising that we all got a little fired up when we saw that the PGA's gears were grinding Sunday night, looking at tape over and over to see if Dustin Johnson really did ground his club, and if so, if it really was a bunker. Shoot, I even threatened bodily harm of an official if it happened. (I didn't carry through on my threat, which is why I'm not typing this in handcuffs.)
And in the 48 or so hours since then, golf fans have been all over the map with their thoughts on the matter. Some expressed outrage that the PGA would nitpick like this, some called Johnson every name in the book for not paying enough attention on the most critical hole of his entire life. And a few actually had nuanced thoughts, recognizing that maybe it wasn't all one side or the other's fault. (Such people do not belong on the Internet.)
We've all examined the tape of Johnson's walk up the hill and that shot as if it were the Zapruder film, trying to pinpoint the locations of Johnson, the caddy, the PGA rules official all on that well-covered grassy knoll. Here's the thing, though -- while that's all fascinating, none of it really matters.
Strip away all the emotion, all the portentous weight of the moment, everything -- and it comes down to this: Dustin Johnson made a mistake. Yes, it was a small one. Yes, his mistake gave him no competitive advantage. Yes, you could argue that it's a silly or misapplied rule. Yes, the "bunkers" outside the ropes at Whistling Straits look like they should have fat beachgoers buried in them, or maybe tumbleweeds blowing across them. Yes, all this is correct and so much more.
But bottom line, Johnson screwed up by failing to recognize the possibility that he might be in a bunker. All the rationalizations and the "yeah, but" reactions in the world can't change that.
It's easy to take a moment like this and blow it up into some societal metaphor -- "The Man always finding a way to bring us down," perhaps, or "these whiny kids today never want to play by the rules." But let's avoid that temptation, if only because this is one of those Rorschach incidents where what you see in it depends on what your worldview is in the first place. Let's just leave it at this:
The rules of golf -- silly and nitpicky as they may be -- are the rules of golf. You know that going in. If you're going to play the game and cash the checks, you've got to know the rules. It sucks for Johnson, beyond belief, but if he can recover from this, he'll be a far better golfer for it.
Oh, and the PGA better budget for a few more rules officials, and whip those guys into shape. After this, every golfer who doesn't land in the middle of the fairway is going to be asking for clarification on every single shot.