Commentary

Dustin Johnson's error will haunt him

Originally Published: August 15, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- A handful of attendants huddled around a television in the corner of the nearly deserted players' locker room at Whistling Straits. The three-hole playoff to determine the winner of the PGA Championship had started.

But behind them, taped just to the right of a body-length mirror, was an 8x10 white sheet of paper that, in its own bizarre, inconceivable way, also helped determine the winner. On it were 97 words that changed Dustin Johnson's life.

The passage began: "There are about 1,200 bunkers on the golf course."

Johnson was in one of them as he prepared to hit his second shot on the 500-yard, par-4 18th hole. He was 12 under and leading the tournament by 1 stroke as he took his stance. A par would win him the major. A bogey would put him into a three-man playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.

And then he grounded his iron.

You can feel sorry for Johnson, but not because a rules infraction cost him a chance at a playoff or championship. Feel sorry for him because his indifference to that sheet of paper will haunt him forever.

Johnson has only himself to blame for committing one of the greatest mistakes in the history of majors golf. It was Roberto De Vicenzo-dumb, a sin of laziness.

De Vicenzo lost the 1968 Masters by signing an incorrect scorecard. Johnson lost any chance of winning the PGA by not reading the rest of those 97 words.

It was right there in black and white: "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 of 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 the play of the Championship. Such irregularities of surface are a part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions."

But Johnson hadn't bothered to familiarize himself with the local rules.

"I never thought I was in sand trap," he said. "It never once crossed my mind that I was in a bunker."

Huh? Johnson never thought the big hole with sand in it was a bunker?

"Maybe I should have looked to the rule sheet a little harder," he said.

Johnson is a gas to watch. He hits it far enough to reach the Michigan side of Lake Michigan. He plays fearlessly.

But sometimes he plays stupidly, as he did while shooting an 82 during the final round of June's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He had the lead there and then he didn't.

Those were mistakes of commission. It happens. But this -- failing to read those specific and detailed local rules -- was a mistake of omission. The same thing goes for his caddie, Bobby Brown.

They didn't have a clue. They do now. Johnson bogeyed the hole to finish at 11 under, but was then assessed the mandatory 2-stroke penalty for the bunker gaffe.

Watson, who finished second to Kaymer, was asked how many players actually read the posted rule.

"I know of at least one that didn't," he said.

There were others who didn't, including Johnson's playing partner, Nick Watney.

"Honestly, I don't think anyone reads the sheet," said Watney.

Honestly, I don't know why not. It's 97 words, not federal tax code. After what happened to Stuart Appleby here at the 2004 PGA Championship, when he was penalized for the same thing, you'd think the sheet would be required reading.

"The man feels so bad," said Whistling Straits owner Herb Kohler, who, along with course architect Pete Dye, was responsible for those 1,200-plus bunkers. "You can see it in his face. As he came up that little walkway, he was quivering."

Kohler had compassion, but he didn't have any regrets about the local rule.

[+] EnlargeDustin Johnson
Stuart Franklin/Getty ImagesHad Dustin Johnson read those 97 words on a locker room wall, he might not have ever had this conversation with a rules official. He might have also been a major champion.

"As long as the edges of those bunkers are defined, it's a bunker," Kohler said. "And whether it's outside the ropes or inside the ropes, it's a bunker. … There are hard lessons in life, I tell you. [But] it was on the rules sheet."

To Johnson's credit, he didn't duck reporters after the round. He didn't duck them after the U.S. Open disaster either. He didn't know he had screwed up until after a tournament official approached him near the 18th green and said, "Dustin, come here -- we've got an issue."

Johnson walked to the back of the Whistling Straits clubhouse, entered the scoring room and sat in disbelief as Mark Wilson, the co-chairman of the PGA of America rules committee, performed an autopsy of the bunker incident. Minutes later Johnson scribbled his name on the scorecard -- making it official -- and that was that.

"He was disappointed," said Wilson. "He couldn't have been more a gentleman about it."

There were boos as news of the ruling made its way through the galleries surrounding the 18th green. Johnson's name was lowered on the scoreboard. Meanwhile, Watson and Kaymer reported to the 10th tee for the playoff -- a playoff that Johnson could have, should have been in.

"Do you feel like something was stolen here?" someone asked Johnson.

"Maybe a little bit," he said. "But, you know, that's how it goes."

It goes that way because Johnson didn't pay attention. Nothing was stolen, only overlooked.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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