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PGA Championship Golfers Find No Bunkers on Hardest U.S. Course

The PGA Championship at Kiawah Island off the South Carolina coast this week has sand everywhere -- just no bunkers.

Two years after American Dustin Johnson missed a playoff when he got a two-shot penalty for not realizing he was in a bunker on his final hole, the PGA of America has eliminated the chance of a repeat performance by adopting a local rule. Nothing is considered a bunker, a first for a PGA Championship. Players are allowed to ground their clubs on the sand and even remove loose debris just as if the ball was resting on grass.

“To make it fair and understandable for the players, this is how we think it should be played,” Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s managing director of championships, said in a news conference. “Hopefully, they understand.”

On his final hole in 2010 at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits, a course with more than 900 bunkers, Johnson’s ball came to rest in a sandy area on the right side of the 18th fairway. Johnson, 28, said he assumed it was a waste area, not a bunker, and touched his club to the ground.

The area, like all sand on the course, officially was considered a bunker although it had been trampled with footprints and spectators had set up chairs in the sand. He was told of his error when he reached the putting green. The ensuing penalty kept him out of a three-hole playoff between Bubba Watson and eventual winner Martin Kaymer.

This week, instead of bunkers where players are forbidden from grounding their club or moving loose rocks or sticks, the links-style Ocean Course has what Haigh called “sandy areas.”

“It’s different, that’s for sure,” Australian Geoff Ogilvy, 35, said in an interview yesterday while waiting out a rainstorm on the clubhouse’s porch. “Some of them look like normal bunkers. Some of them look like waste areas. If Dustin hadn’t done what he had done, I’m sure we might have had a setup with some waste areas and some bunkers.”

Pete Dye

Dealing with the unusual sand conditions might not be the only issue four-time PGA Championship winner Tiger Woods and other players will be faced with this week at the Pete Dye-built course, ranked as the toughest in the U.S. by Golf Digest.

Dye, 86, who also built Whistling Straits and Florida’s TPC Sawgrass course, site of the U.S. PGA Tour’s Players championship, has created a 7,676-yard (7,019-meter) layout that players said is more of a mental test than physical.

“You have to think,” Woods, 36, who is seeking his first major title since the 2008 U.S. Open, said in a news conference. “You can’t just go up there and just swing away and hit it and go find it.”

The winner of 14 major titles, Woods is a 7-1 favorite to win golf’s final major of the year, according to Las Vegas Hotel’s sports book. England’s Luke Donald, the world’s No. 1 golfer, is second at 15-1 followed by countryman Lee Westwood at 20-1.

Ryder Cup

Haigh said the decision to play the course without official bunkers is consistent with how the course was played during the 1991 Ryder Cup matches between Europe and the U.S. and the 2007 Senior PGA Championship.

The course’s oceanfront location features a variety of sand surfaces. Most of the areas are hard-packed beach sand. However, some sand areas around the putting surfaces are entirely surrounded by grass, giving them a traditional bunker look.

Many of those areas have been filled with new softer sand in the months leading up to the tournament. While rakes have been placed in many greenside sandy areas, players or their caddies aren’t required to smooth the sand after playing a shot.

Courtesy Raking

Tournament officials posted a notice in the locker room, Haigh said, asking players to rake those areas as a courtesy if they cause “severe damage.”

Before coming to see the course, British Open winner Ernie Els criticized the bunker decision. After two practice rounds this week, Els said the decision now makes more sense.

“I take my words back,” Els, 42, said in a news conference. “There’s a lot of sand out there, so it’s probably better to not have any bunkers. It would be almost impossible to maintain them all. I think it’s a good decision.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Buteau in Kiawah Island at mbuteau@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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