The rules of golf are by no means simple to learn thoroughly and are a bit like using a calculator in a maths exam and still getting things wrong. Even finding the right rule when you have the rule book in front of you is no mean feat. However, there are a few basic principals that you learn at a young age and one of the first is to read the local rules if you are playing an unfamiliar course.
Boy how Dustin Johnson must still be wishing he had done just that at the USPGA in August. Picking up a two-shot penalty for grounding your club in a bunker on the final hole is just about as heartbreaking as it can get. Thank goodness he only thought he was in a play-off and not the outright winner.
Two things contributed to the controversial rules breach in my view. Firstly, the marshalling could have been a lot better. I know it’s tricky trying to move 3,000 excited and perhaps slightly inebriated golf fans, especially when they have a close-up view of perhaps the decisive shot of a Major championship, but having people standing in the same bunker as you when playing a shot is so unique that it could easily have contributed to the lack of realisation that he was actually in a bunker.
However the marshals can hardly be expected to ‘assume’ that Johnson knew he was in a hazard. Their job was to clear enough room for him to hit his shot and they did that, just enough for him to be unimpeded.
The walking PGA official, however, does have a role to play in making sure no breach of the Rules occurs and it would not have taken a big stretch of the imagination to realise that it did look, at least on TV, that the ball was just lying on a piece of sandy ground that had been worn away by the crowd. He should have been well aware of the unique circumstances at Whistling Straits where some 900 bunkers would be unraked, and that spectators could walk in them.
The PGA say they tried their best all week to communicate this arrangement to the players by posting notices all over the locker-room mirrors and in bold type on the rules sheet. The easiest way to have communicated this at the time would have been for the official to gently remind Dustin by a slightly out-dated means of communication: speech.
This did not happen and I would imagine that if it had crossed the officials mind at all he will be filled with regret about the incident. Unfortunately though, the harsh fact is that Johnson himself was 95% to blame. A fact that he managed to accept with both grace and humility.
I am led to believe that Dustin has admitted that at no stage did he read the local rules sheet or the notices in the clubhouse. So it did not slip his mind under all the pressure of that final hole that all sanded areas were bunkers; the information had simply not been entered into his mind in the first place.
What a shame for him, after the disaster of his final round at Pebble Beach in the US Open, to come back and conquer his demons and have a one-shot lead on the 72nd hole, only for it all to slip away because of a rules breach, must have been awfully hard to take. How golf’s image came out of it all is up for debate. Too pernickety and too hard to understand for the casual watching sports fan? Or fair and upstanding unlike so many other sports? It’s just a shame we have to debate it at all.
Every credit to Johnson for winning the BMW Championship, the penultimate FedEx Cup event. No one would have been surprised had he fallen off the radar for a while, but he has bounced back. In some ways Johnson has been the player of the season, learning from tough lessons all year long. One thing we know he has defiantly learnt – read the local rules or face the consequences.
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