Dustin Johnson was greeted with a locker-room note explaining the rules about Whistling Straits’ plentiful bunkers when he arrived at the course for the PGA Championship early last week.
At the most critical time, his reading retention failed him.
Johnson missed out on a playoff to determine the winner of the last major tournament of the golf season after being assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker before his second shot at the 18th hole yesterday.
“Maybe I should have looked to the rule sheet a little harder,” Johnson said in a televised interview with CBS after he completed play. “It never once crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap.”
Like many of the course’s hazards, the bunker Johnson’s ball came to rest in had been trampled by spectators, who had limited walking room around the hilly course. During the week, children were often seen lying in bunkers away from the main areas of play. Fans sometimes arranged their chairs in them.
That doesn’t change the fact that players were made aware of the unique “local” rule, course owner Herb Kohler said.
“It was on the rules sheet,” Kohler told reporters behind the course’s stone clubhouse. “It’s crushing for Dustin. It’s crushing for everyone that watched and heard and feels for Dustin. On the other hand, darn it, it’s the rules of golf.”
After the penalty, Johnson’s score was changed to a 1-over par 73, leaving him two shots out of a playoff with Bubba Watson and eventual winner Martin Kaymer.
Before submitting his score, Johnson was approached by rules official Mark Wilson, who informed him of his gaffe. Nick Watney, Johnson’s final-round playing partner, was among those surprised by the ruling.
“He asked Dustin if he grounded his club and I didn’t know what hole he was talking about,” Watney said. “Dustin said he definitely did, but that he didn’t realize that it was a bunker. I mean there were people in there with him.”
It was the second disappointment in a major for Johnson this season. In June, the 26-year-old South Carolina native held a three-shot lead heading into the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He shot 82 and finished tied for eighth.
This time, Johnson’s mistake was magnified by the unique construction of the Pete Dye-designed course along the western shore of Lake Michigan. Unlike most professional venues, Whistling Straits was constructed with about 1,200 rough-edged bunkers covering all areas of the property. Dye’s design was intended to make the course resemble wild Irish dunes.
Because of that, tournament officials attempted to inform all players by posting the rules in the locker room and caddie areas, as they do each week.
“It was on the sheet,” Watney said. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone reads the sheet. We have played in hundreds of tournaments and there is a sheet every week.”
The 2004 PGA Championship was also staged at the course. That year, Australia’s Stuart Appleby was assessed two separate two-stroke penalties for moving a loose piece of grass and taking a practice swing in a bunker during the third round. A fan alerted a rules official to Appleby’s infraction.
Whistling Straits designer Pete Dye, 84, defended the ruling.
“They tried to make sure that everybody knew that anything out here was a bunker that had sand in it,” Dye said in an interview on the Golf Channel. “It was a bunker. There’s 1,200 more of them out there that you could find.”
Golfers have long cursed the designs of Dye, a 2008 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame, describing them as “Dye-abolical” because of their penalizing nature.
Asked if the local rule should be revisited before the tournament returns to the course in 2015, Dye didn’t waver.
“We’ll probably add a few more (bunkers),” he said.
The U.S. PGA Tour, which is separate to tournament organizer the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, attempted to distance itself from the decision.
“The PGA Tour did not make the ruling and had no authority over the outcome,” a statement from the tour said.