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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."

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