Dustin Johnson: Harsh Penalty, Harsher Lesson

Dustin Johnson talks with rules official David Price on the 18th hole during the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010, at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wis. Johnson was later assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the hole.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
This story was written by CBSSports.com senior writer Steve Elling

The rules notice still hung prominently, even as the tournament was in its final last gasps, on the row of lockers in the Whistling Straits clubhouse.

It was black print on a piece of white, 8 x 11 paper. Not a lick of gray to be found.

Unlike myriad golf rules that require a team of lawyers to understand, it was darned conclusive. Especially for anybody who was at the PGA Championship staged here six years ago.

"All areas of the course that were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as bunkers (hazards), whether or not they have been raked. This will mean that many bunkers positioned outside the ropes, as well as some areas of bunkers inside the ropes, close to the rope line, will likely include numerous footprints, heel prints and tire tracks during play of the championship. Such irregularities of surface are part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions."

For rising American star Dustin Johnson, the devil is in these details.

In one of the most controversial rulings in recent major-championship history, the 26-year-old was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a grass-strewn, rough-hewn bunker on the 72nd hole and denied a chance to participate in a playoff for the title with Bubba Watson and eventual winner Martin Kaymer.

It was a brutally hard lesson for Johnson, but golf is about more than the low score. In the moments that followed what eventually became his 1-over 73 on Sunday, it was about reading, writhing and arithmetic.

In a ridiculous reprise of 2004, when Stuart Appleby was whacked with four shots in penalty strokes in the third round because he didn't bother to eyeball the local rules sheet, neither Johnson nor playing partner Nick Watney bothered to read the writing on the wall. It cost the ball-blasting Johnson, who had birdied the 16th and 17 holes in clutch fashion to take a one-shot lead, any chance at winning the tournament when his bogey on the last morphed into a triple-bogey.

While all the shrugs, handwringing and finger-pointing was going on, Johnson admitted he never read any rules sheet. Now, of course, he knows he should have.

"I asked Nick, I said, 'Did you know that?'" Johnson said. "He didn't know that, either. You know, I only look at it if [the sheet] I have a reason to, and I didn't see I had a reason to."

Hard lesson learned.

So, save the bombast, please. Sure, Whistling Straits is a bizarre, man-made amalgamation of sand and rump-high hay, and stands as tribute to what man can do with an unlimited design budget and an army of bulldozers. The deconstructed, wild bunkers are part of the charm. In an attempt to simplify the confusion over which sandy portions are bunkers and which are waste areas -- in the latter, players are free to sole the clubs -- everything was deemed to be a bunker back in 2004.

The rule isn't exactly ambiguous, is it? There was some question in Johnson's mind whether he was in a bunker or not, but the nitty-gritty truth is, if there's sand, it's a trap. And he fell into it. The rules official explained as much as Johnson watched the replay, over and over.

"Pretty much he said that any piece of sand on the whole golf course is a bunker," Johnson shrugged.

Johnson held a one-shot lead as he played the 18th and blew his tee shot into the gallery, approximately 40 yards wide of the fairway. When he arrived, the ball was surrounded by a throng of hundreds, many standing in the sand, obscuring his view of the bunker. Aerial views show conclusively that the area was designed as a bunker, though it was easy to think it was an area that had been trampled down to bare dirt by pedestrian traffic.

That was the sentiment that prompted most of the caustic feedback. When the fans at the 18th learned that Johnson had been nixed from the playoff, they booed lustily. Johnson's caddie, Bobby Brown, stormed from the scoring center and barked, "No comment."

As Johnson was being interrogated by the PGA of America rules official Mark Wilson and reviewing replays of his violation, about 40 media members gathered outside and peered in the window to the scoring area. Elsewhere, as the decision was being mulled, an instant social-media stampede began as fellow professionals raced to his electronic defense with some blunt Twitter comments.

Rarely has a ruling touched off such a firestorm of commentary. The PGA Tour, which had nothing to do with the administration of the event, posted the following on its Facebook page, where fans were going ballistic: "The PGA Tour did not make the ruling and had no authority over the outcome. Your comments are appreciated, but please keep them clean of foul language and attacks."

Johnson's professional peers jumped to his defense, although as any judge or referee will be quick to note, ignorance of the rule is no excuse.

"I didn't see any notice in the locker room but I wasn't looking for them," Ian Poulter wrote. "They may have been there."

Former Masters champion Trevor Immelman wrote: "Gutted for Dustin. Shocking rule, 900+ bunkers and probably only 100 rakes. I don't get it! That is ridiculous, since when can a 1000 spectators walk through a bunker? Stupid!"

LPGA star Paula Creamer chimed in with: "That is a horrible call. I just can't believe it."

PGA Tour veteran Joe Ogilvie: "I'm stupefied they are even considering penalizing Dustin. If anything, it is ground under repair."

Watney and Johnson were greeted by a rules official as they walked off the 18th and neither knew which had committed a possible violation. Johnson had just missed a 7-footer for par that he thought was for an outright win. He missed and was ratcheting himself up for a playoff.

Not so fast. He finished T5 instead.

Sympathy was hardly universal, however. Billionaire Herb Kohler, who owns the place, laid down the letter of the law afterward.

"It's a bunker," Kohler said. "Whether it's outside the ropes or inside the ropes doesn't make any difference, it's still a bunker. Hard lessons in life I tell you, but it was on the rules sheet.

"I'm not sure it's negative. It's hard, it's terrible and 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.

"The point is, golf has rules. And the beauty of golf is, those rules apply to all of us. Be it professional or amateur and the values of golf have evolved from the rules of golf. And it's those values that are really quite precious.

"They all knew it."

Uh, no they didn't. Not even close.

"When the official came up, I was totally shocked," said Watney, the 54-hole leader, who shot 81. "I thought he was coming at me, the way my day was going. He asked Dustin if he grounded his club and I didn't know what hole he was talking about.

"Dustin said he definitely did [ground the club], but that he didn't realize it was a bunker. I mean, there were people in there with him. You know, they showed us the sheet, it was on the sheet."

Watney paused for a moment.

"Honestly, I don't think anyone reads the sheet," he said. "We have played in hundreds of tournaments and there is a sheet every week. I feel for him. I have never seen fans in a bunker with a player."

Odd, because I've never seen a player reading a rules sheet, either.