Dustin Johnson should have known better. He should have payed closer attention to the rule book. You should never, ever ground your club in the sand. It was clearly a sand trap that his second shot found itself in on the 18th hole. It wasn’t being used, as the footprints blanketed the surface.
That’s what the uproar was about. PGA Tour officials were blasted because of their ruling. But rules are rules. Sand is sand. What transpired just happened to be shocking and saddening for a 26-year-old South Carolinian looking for his first major victory.
He played the hole as if nothing illegal happened, as he wasn’t punished on the spot. He studied his second shot, grounded his iron beside the ball, looked over it some more, then placed his club once more on the sandy surface before blasting his shot into the rough across the fairway. It wasn’t a good shot, though it sounded powerful, but the hole wasn’t a complete disaster. He played his third brilliantly to within six feet, but missed the putt.
A par, which meant converting the six-footer, would have given him the victory. He missed it to the right, it never even sniffing the hole. But it turned out that even if he had converted, and had not forced a three-way playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer as he did, a celebration would have been halted.
Whistling Straits, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, is home to over 1,000 bunkers. Some, like the one he was in on the final and memorable hole, would normally be labeled “waste areas” where clubs can be grounded. Not in this course’s rule book, however. As he walked off the green to the clubhouse after the deflating bogey, he was approached by an official, who presumably informed him a penalty could ensue.
He waited as officials watched the replay of his sand shot, then came the most disappointing and stunning moment of his professional life. Cameras caught him sitting in a chair, hunkering over his score card, erasing his five and penning a seven in its place.
The ruling put him in a tie for fifth. He went from possibly earning $1.35 million with a victory to settling for a hard-to-digest $270,833. The money difference, however, had to play second fiddle to the embarrassment he must have felt.
The playoff between Kaymer and Watson was almost an afterthought with what happened to Johnson. There was a long delay for the ruling.
Then, officials were interviewed, CBS announcer David Feherty commentated from the scene of the crime, and then Johnson spoke, despondently saying, “I never thought I was in a sand trap. It never once crossed my mind that I was in a bunker.” A sunset filled the sky. And a three-hole may the best man win contest awaited to decide the victor of the season’s final major.
Kaymer prevailed. He played intelligent golf, whereas Watson swung for the fences. On the third playoff hole, with both golfers one-under after the first two, Watson went for the green with his second shot.
He had 206 yards to the hole and pulled a six-iron out of the bag. He had to go over a sea of rough to reach the green in two, but it turned out he picked the wrong club, as his attempt landed in a stream roughly 40 yards shy of the green.
Kaymer watched this unfold and made a decision that reaped benefits. Any attempt to go for the green would have some risk attached, and having watched Watson use two clubs too short, Kaymer went the safe route, chipping out of the rough, setting up a mid-iron from the fairway.
That shot landed 17 feet from the pin, and after watching Watson’s chip from a greenside bunker ricochet off the flag (if would have gone in if the flag had been pulled), he followed by two-putting his way to his first PGA Tour victory.
He thrust his arms into the air, then, inhaling, it could be read reality had just hit him. He won, and deservedly, too. Johnson may have thrown away a chance to compete for the championship. Johnson’s club-grounding has garnered most of the attention and may continue to, but it shouldn’t. Kaymer’s win should.
Some are one-major wonders, but, given his consistently steady play, intelligence, and clutch putting that was on display at the bunker-strewn course, there is no reason to believe the 25-year-old German will be one of them.