As I’ve read dozens—perhaps a hundred—articles on Dustin Johnson’s the consensus seems to be settling in that the fault lies with player and caddy. Johnson admittedly didn’t pay much attention to the local rules sheet and if in doubt should have asked. I don’t disagree.
But I think the problem for Johnson was that he had no doubt. It never occurred to him that the bare area was a bunker.
I’ve attended two major championships—the Senior Championship at TPC Dearborn and the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills—as well as the Buick Open and the LPGA’s Jamie Farr. In all of those, the crowds had by the end of the weekend stomped out large bare spots along the sidelines that in sandy soil would have looked for all the world like the spot Johnson encountered.
Going strictly by the USGA’s definition of a bunker, I can see where there might be some confusion:
“A ‘bunker’ is a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand or the like.
With the crowds standing around, many obvious signs of bunker status likely were obscured. Further, crowds don’t stand in hazards. Still, there was that lip right in front of him …
A couple of other thoughts:
First, there are just too many bunkers on that course. It’s absurd that even the designer doesn’t have a handle on the number. I’ve seen several estimates, and several attempts by golf writers to enumerate them. None agree. So there’s no way to actually know whether that was a “prepared area of ground” or a random hole. The designer can’t look at a blueprint and say “indeed, I put a bunker there.”
Second, I wonder about the absence of the “blue dots.” According to the sheet that Johnson didn’t read, “where necessary, blue dots define the margin of the bunker.” I suppose they didn’t think it necessary here.
In the future, the PGA—and it will return to Whistling Straits for another PGA and the Ryder Cup in the next ten years—should define as a bunker anything within the ropes and as a waste area anything outside the ropes.
And finally, given the uncertainty about the nature of the bare spot, I think what the PGA should have proceeded under rule 1-4: If any point in dispute is not covered by the Rules, the decision should be made in accordance with equity.
There was doubt about the nature of the terrain. No one could prove that it actually was a “prepared areal,” and so Johnson should have been given the benefit of the doubt.
It’s to Johnson’s credit, however, that he didn’t argue any of these points. I actually think he’s learned a lot in missing out on two majors this year. If he’s half a man, he’ll be back in contention later, lessons learned.
Just a final musing … it occurred to me as I was writing the title of this post that it won’t be long before the bulk of the population no longer knows the origins of the -gate suffix.