Last Sunday at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Dustin Johnson played the best golf of his life under immense pressure. The long hitting 26 year old South Carolina native was in the last group Sunday three shots behind third round leader Nick Watney. He knew exactly what Watney was going through, sleeping on a three shot lead at a major championship. He had been in the same situation just two months before on Sunday at the 2010 U. S. Open at Pebble Beach. Even with the experience of winning the 2009 and 2010 AT&T Championships held at Pebble, the pressure had gotten to him and he made a triple bogey, a double bogey, and a bogey in the first 5 holes that day on the way to an eventual 82 that ranked as one of the greates all time collapses in U. S. Open history.
Dustin had learned much from that experience and over the three preceding rounds at the PGA Championship was able to put himself back into contention at a major, in the last group on Sunday, and just three shots off the lead. It appeared that the “Golfing Gods” had taken a liking to Dustin and after turning the front 9 in 37 (+1) he was still at -9 under par for the tournament and just a shot off the lead going into the final nine holes. He picked up another birdie at 13 to get to -10. Bubba Watson playing a few holes ahead of the last group finished 18 and posted -11. Dustin now knew exactly what was needed and he was up to the task. He made birdie on the on the par 5 sixteenth to get to -11, tied with the clubhouse leader. Next came the unbelievebly difficult par 3 17th hole. The green sits some 223 yards in the distance across a valley filled with heather, gourse, and too many deep treacherous bunkers to count and it appears to be hanging precariously out over Lake Michigan which is waiting to swallow any errant tee shots. He nailed a perfect 6 iron pin high and calmly stroked in the birdie putt that gave him the outright lead at -12. All he needed was a par on the long winding 18th and he could claim to the Wanamaker Trophy. Martin Kaymer a smooth playing young German finished -11 in the group ahead, tied with Watson in the clubhouse.
It was at this point that the “Golfing Gods” decided to change the course of events and conceive a finish that golf fans will be disussing, arguing and replaying for decades. Whistling Straits was designed by Pete Dye-abolical, a man who takes great pleasure in the pain and suffering of the professional and common golfer alike. His dastardly designs include the par 3 17th “Island Green” at TPC Jacksonville. That short little chip shot over water that begins to tie golfer’s stomach in knots before they even get to the golf course. Mr. Dye like every good husband must do listened to his wife when she suggested all sand areas on the Whistling Straits course sould be played as sand bunkers and not waste areas. Thus when a poorly struck golf ball happens to wander into one of the over 1,200 sand filled bunkers on the Whistling Straits golf course a player is not permitted to ground his club. Even when said bunker is outside of the ropes and throngs of spectators have trudged through and drug some of the aforementioned heather and gourse into, as well as, dropped the occasional empty container of their favorite cold beverage into the same. Making it difficult to even identify as a bunker, let alone find an alley big enough among David Feherty and the horde of rabid golf fans, to make a golf swing and advance the ball toward the distant green. In the heat of the moment neither Dustin Johnson nor his caddy were not thinking about bunkers being in such a place. They were trying to pick the correct club that would get the ball airborne out of this trampled down, grass strewn, sandy lie and get it somewhere onto the dance floor to leave them with two putts to make the required par and win the damned golf tournament.
The crowd parted, Johnson pulled a club, and launced a shot heavenward. It was slightly off target sailing long and a little left of the green. Leaving him a tough up and down for par, a bogey would put him in the playoff with Watson and Kaymer. Dustin nipped a great chip shot to within eight feet but again the “Golfing Gods” stepped in and kept the ball out of the hole, bogey, playoff. As Dustin and his playing partner Watney were leaving the 18th green the PGA rules official assigned to their pairing approached both of them and informed Dustin that there was a question of him grounding his club prior to his second shot. His drive had come to rest in a bunker and a two shot penalty would be assessed to his score turning his 71 into a 73 for a total of -9 under par for the tournament dropping him out of the playoff and into a tie for 5th place. Ouch!!
With TV coverage all inclusive and every twitch and jerk of the player recorded for the edification of the viewership and ratings, it was evident that Dustin grounded his club preceding his full golf swing. Which had his ball not come to rest in a trodden down, dried out, grass strewn, garbage filled, bunker would have been perfectly allowable, however his ball had found one of Mrs. Dye’s sand filled bunkers.
It is important to note that a similar situation happened to Stuart Appleby in the 2004 PGA Championship held at this very same course. Appleby had hit a wayward drive into the crowd and when he arrived at his ball assumed that the sandy area was a waste bunker due to the amount of crowd traffic that had trampled through it. He grounded his club, was assessed a penalty and that was the end of his 2004 PGA chances. The PGA made it the #1 priority in their pretournament listing of local rules for the players that all of the bunkers at Whistling Straits were sand bunkers and to be played as such. Even going so far as to posting the list of local rules on the mirror in the locker room. If you ask any player or caddy on the PGA Tour everyone, to a man, would tell you that it is incumbant on the player and the caddy to know the rules and to judiciously adhere to them.
Golf prides itself as a sport of gentlemen and one of its main tenets is the understanding of and the assessment of rule violations during a round of golf. Dustin nor his caddy realized that the ball had come to rest inside of a bunker. Had they known he would never have grounded his club and been assessed the penalty strokes that kept him from the playoff. But that is the point, even though he didn’t know that he had committed a penalty, he accepted the ruling and complied with the rules. He didn’t make a big deal about it. He didn’t call for a higher ruling. He didn’t cry for his mommy. He calmly listened to the explanation and while Kaymer and Watson went on about their playoff, he went to his courtesy car and headed for home. Professional golf is not for the weak of heart.
Some in the media are trying to lay blame for Johnson’s mistake on the rules official. They contend that he should have been closer to Johnson when he arrived at his ball and advised him that he was indeed in a bunker. Others have raised the point that the PGA should not have allowed spectators to trample through bunkers that could possibly be in play. These are all valid arguments, however, the “local rule” pertaining to sand bunkers at Whistling Straits was well known. TV announcers had even mentioned it in telecastes earlier in the week and referred to the Stuart Appleby fiasco from 2004.
This is one of the reasons that I like golf so much. The rule is the rule. The only one to blame for an errant shot or a rules violation is yourself. The golfer can’t blame the weather or anything else. It is his sole responsibility to attend to his score and abide by the rules of golf, period, end of story.
Maybe we would all be a little better off if we could all take a lesson from Dustin Johnson and golf. Attend to our own daily situation. If we make a mistake, learn from it, but don’t try to blame it on someone or something else. Then try to act like it wasn’t our fault in the first place. Everyone makes mistakes, accept the consequences and move on.
Dustin has had an outstanding year on tour. He has one win, made 16 cuts in 19 starts, amassed over $2.7 million, is 11th in FedEx Cup points, and has qualified for the Ryder Cup Team. All in all its been a great year for Dustin Johnson. The “Golfing Gods” may have had some fun with him in 2010 but I don’t think that we have heard the last from this future star. He isn’t afraid to put himself in the spotlight. He now knows what it is like to fail at the highest level. It will make it that much sweeter when he does succeed.