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Golf's Biggest Mistakes

Dustin Johnson's rules violation at the 2010 PGA Championship was just another in a long list of screw ups by professional golfers
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

When David Price walked up to Dustin Johnson after he finished putting on the 18th green at Whistling Straits, he wasn't just following the game's etiquette. This wasn't the typical "congratulations on a fine round" handshake. There was trouble.

The Rules of Golf, the byzantine and serpentine set of regulations that govern the sport and define those who play it, were about to take a huge chunk out of Dustin Johnson's professional soul. Price, the head professional at the Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas, had been the walking rules official for Johnson's group, the final pairing on Sunday of the PGA Championship. Johnson was in a position to win, carrying a one-stroke lead to the final hole. Johnson, who Tiger Woods once described as "sick long," needed a par on the 18th hole to win the title. It would have been sweet redemption for his final round meltdown in the U.S. Open, where as the leader he fell apart the last day.

Johnson was long enough that he could have hit a 3-wood off the tee on the 500-yard 18th, but he went with his driver. He blew it way right, bringing into play the lattice work of bunkers that the devilish architect Pete Dye had strewn by the hundreds around the course.

When he got to his ball, some 30 yards to the right of the fairway, there was bedlam. The ball had come to rest in some sand, but neither Johnson nor his caddy thought it was a hazard. There were spectators standing in the sand, it was pot-marked with footprints, and Johnson just thought it was waste area, even though there was a clear definition of a bunker lip right in front of him. When he addressed his ball, he grounded his club behind it. He grounded it again. Then he hit a ball short of the green in the rough, pitched from there to 12 feet and had a putt he thought would win the championship for him. He missed it, tapped in for what he thought was a bogey and was now prepared for a play-off.

That's when Price came up to him. Price had heard in his earpiece that rules officials watching on television saw Johnson ground his club in the bunker. Price was told not to let Johnson sign his card for a 5 on the hole. Grounding his club was a two-shot penalty. Johnson was taken to the rules office where the shot was replayed and he saw that he had grounded his club. He was also told that, in accordance with a local rules issued to players at the start of the tournament, that any sand on the course was considered a hazard and that players would not be allowed to ground their clubs.

So instead of a bogey and a spot in the play-off with Bubba Watson and eventual champion Martin Kaymer, Johnson had to sign for a seven. Instead of his name being etched on the Wanamaker Trophy as a major champion, Dustin Johnson now goes down in infamy for committing one of golf's biggest rules blunders.

Johnson handled himself with dignity after the disaster.

"I just thought it was a piece of dirt that the crowd had trampled down," he said. "I never thought I was in a sand trap. It never once crossed my mind that I was in a bunker."

But what about those rules sheets that were taped to everyone's locker at the start of the week?

"Obviously I know the rules of golf and I can't ground my club in a bunker," he said. "Maybe I should have looked [at the] rules sheet a little harder."

Golf, unlike any other sport, is a game played by rules that are largely enforced by the players themselves. Any deliberate violation of the rules by a player will put a black mark by his name throughout his career.

During the 1925 U.S. Open, Bobby Jones addressed a ball in the rough, then saw it move ever so slightly. He called a one-shot penalty on himself as the rules require even though no one else saw it move. When he was complimented on his sportsmanship after the round, Jones replied: "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank."

That line has become the very definition of golf sportsmanship and there are many examples of players calling penalties on themselves. In 1978 Tom Kite, playing in the Hall of Fame Classic in Pinehurst, soled his putter behind a ball, then saw the ball move a fraction of an inch. He called a one-shot penalty on himself. "If you don't play by the rules, you are not playing golf," said Kite. He lost the tournament by a stroke.

In the 2005 British Open at St Andrews, David Toms spent a sleepless night after the first round. He kept thinking that when he soled his putter on the 17th green, the ball had moved. If it had, he would have to call a penalty on himself. But he didn't. The next day he went to rules officials to inform them of the situation. The officials could not tell from a television replay whether the ball had moved, but Toms was so distressed by the situation that he withdrew from the tournament.

Dustin Johnson clearly wasn't the first player to run afoul of the rules, and run afoul of them in a major championship. There have been plenty of rules disasters over the years, some of them the result of the television age where viewers watching a broadcast have called in after spotting an infraction.

Here are nine more blunders that are part of golf's lore.

Roberto De Vicenzo

Roberto De Vicenzo, the accomplished and respected Argentinean, was one of the world's best players in the 1950s and '60s. In 1967 he won the British Open.

At the 1968 Masters De Vicenzo was in contention on Sunday, and when he made a birdie on the 17th hole, he tied Bob Goalby for the lead. After a par on the 18th, De Vicenzo went to the scorer's table thinking he would meet Goalby in an 18-hole play-off the following day.

He routinely signed his scorecard, which was kept by his playing partner Tommy Aaron. But Aaron had made an error, recording a par 4 on the 17th hole instead of the birdie 3 that De Vicenzo had made. The rules of golf don't penalize a player for signing for a higher score than he made, only a lower one, but it makes the higher score official. Once De Vicenzo, who failed to catch the erroneous digit, signed his card it became his final score. And he was officially out of the play-off, with Goalby the winner.

It was then than De Vicenzo uttered one of the most memorable lines in sport: "What a stupid I am."

Craig Stadler

Craig Stadler's rules contretemps at the 1987 Andy Williams San Diego Open ushered in the age of television viewer as rules monitor. Stadler's drive on the 14th hole of Torrey Pines finished underneath a tree. He figured the only way he could play the shot was from his knees. He also figured he didn't want to get his pants dirty. So he took the towel from his bag and placed it on the grass so that he could kneel on it. He played the shot and went on to finish the round in second place.

But a savvy and ambitious television viewer saw a violation and got through to the tournament rules officials. The viewer pointed out that the use of a towel was in violation of a rule that prohibits a player from "building a stance." Because he had done so, Stadler should have assessed himself a two-shot penalty. But he didn't and signed for a score that was two shots less. PGA Tour officials agreed that the towel was in violation of the rule and Stadler was disqualified from the tournament.

In 1995, Stadler was given his chance for revenge. The tree was to be taken down, and Stadler got the first cut.

Julie Inkster

Just a week after Dustin Johnson's blunder, LPGA veteran Julie Inkster had a brain cramp, another one witnessed by a television viewer.

Inkster was contending in the LPGA Safeway Classic at North Plains, Oregon, and was three shots out of the lead in the middle of the third round. There was a long backup on the 10th hole, so Inkster reached into her bag and took out a weighted training aid, attached it to her club and started swinging to stay limber. A television viewer called, saying that using a training aid during a round of golf was a rules violation, which indeed it is.

To confirm it, the LPGA called the USGA, which along with Royal and Ancient Golf Society of St Andrews governs the game, and a USGA official confirmed that it was indeed a violation of the rules. Use of a training aid during a round doesn't incur penalty shots, it's outright automatic disqualification.

Michelle Wie
Michelle Wie is the most famous female golfer of the new century, and also the most infamous. Wie has a career's worth of blunders in her first six seasons playing as a professional. She has been star-crossed by the rules of golf, though in truth they are all situations of her own making.

How about being disqualified from her first tournament as a pro in 2005?

During the third round of the Samsung World Championship at Palm Desert, California, Wie hit a shot into a bush. After much deliberation about where to take a drop, for which she would incur a penalty of a shot for removing her ball from an unplayable lie, Wie's ball ended up in a spot closer to the hole. At least that's what Sports Illustrated reporter Michael Bamberger, who was following the group, thought. Though he did not inform rules officials until the next day. After Wie had apparently finished the tournament in fourth place, rules officials informed her of the possible violation.

In an extraordinary move, the officials went back to the scene of the alleged crime, used string to measure where the drop was taken after reviewing a television tape, and determined that she had dropped the ball three inches closer to the hole than would be allowed. Because she did, andbecause she didn't assess herself a two-shot penalty, she was disqualified.

That was the beginning of a series of rules violations, sort of golf's version of juvenile delinquency. At the 2006 British Women's Open, she was assessed a two-stroke penalty after play was completed when officials reviewing a videotape ruled that she had made illegal contact with moss in a bunker during her backswing. In 2008 she neglected to sign her scorecard after the second round of the State Farm Classic. The oversight wasn't discovered until the next day, and when it was, she was disqualified.

In March of this year, Wie was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding her club in a hazard during the Kia Classic at La Costa, California. She had driven the ball into the verge of a water hazard on the 13th hole. She had grounded her club, she said, to keep her balance before hitting the shot, which is not a violation. But a rules official who observed the situation didn't buy it and assessed her the penalty.


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