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The “Rule of Law” Requires Good Rules – Even (or Especially) in Golf

For the golfers among us, yesterday’s final round of the PGA Championships at the demanding and beautiful Whistling Straits Golf Courts in Kohler, Wisconsin, brought not just the normal excitement but quite a bit of controversy as well.

Dustin Johnson came to the 18th hole sitting on a one shot lead at 12 under par, with two guys in the clubhouse at 11 under, Bubba Watson and eventual champion Martin Kaymer. Dustin blocked his drive to the right, landing deep in to the tens of thousands of spectators making up the gallery. His ball came to rest in a little flat spot covered in sand deep in the middle of those spectators who followed the custom of opening up a path for Dustin to get to his ball and take his shot. He made it back there, assessed his lie, picked a 5 iron for the approximately 230-yard shot and set up to the ball and hit his shot left of the green. He ultimately missed an 8 foot putt for par and was headed for a playoff. Or so he thought.

A rules official notified him of a problem.

Here’s what happened. A bunker, normally filled with sand, is what is known as a “hazard” and under the rules of Golf, a player is not permitted to “ground” his club (that is, to touch the ground before he strikes the ball). Now, Whistling Straits is a Pete Dye-designed course, and is heavily bunkered – in fact, it has over a thousand of them. Dustin’s ball had ended up in one of these bunkers. And Dustin grounded his club before he struck the ball. Dustin was assessed a 2 shot penalty, forcing him out of the playoff and to the locker room.

The first thing that should be noted is that Dustin Johnson handled the situation like a total gentleman and with class and respect for the game, the officials and his fellow competitors. Kudos to him. But the reason I am writing is that most of the commentary about the unfortunate event has centered on the fact Johnson should have read the rules sheet (either more intently, or at all) so that he would have known that the local rule (because of the 1000+ bunkers) is that ALL bunkers on the course are to be played as a true bunker. In other words, despite feeling bad for him, “it was Dustin’s fault.”

Yes, it technically was his fault and the PGA made the right ruling. It was a bunker, he grounded his club and it was a violation. BUT, that is not the important lesson for me.

The rule of law – in sports or in real life – requires having good rules. At Whistling Straits, the local rules allow spectators to walk through certain of the hundreds of bunkers. I think this is a bad idea in the first place, but ok – fine, maybe it’s needed to get spectators around. But it is a terrible rule to say that a bunker that has been trampled, and is filled with spectators, must be played like a normal bunker. A bunker filled with spectators is not likely to be identified as such by a player.

In short this is a terrible rule – and in the last event held at this course, another one of the game’s best golfers was bitten by a similar situation (Stuart Appleby was penalized 4 shots). Every competitive golfer I know could have fallen prey to this situation. He walked up, was on flat ground with some sand on it and saw nothing resembling the outlines of a normal bunker because 90 percent of the bunker was filled with spectators.

The PGA Championship returns to Whistling Straits in 2015 and the Ryder Cup will be held there in 2020. Before those tournaments are held, the PGA must find a rule that works, because the last two events held there have undermined the very important and very respectable Rules of Golf by requiring them to be applied in ridiculous ways.

The rule I would propose is this: if spectators are allowed to walk in any particular bunker, that bunker is not treated as a hazard. It is treated as what is known as a “waste bunker,” and then the player is allowed to ground his club. That way, confusion such as that which marred the final round of the final major of the year can be avoided in the future.

And in that way, the Rules of Golf can continue to be upheld and respected as reasonable, fair and important to the core of the game. Rules have to be respectable to be respected. Johnson conducted himself like a gentleman – let’s hope that the PGA Rules Committee honors his commitment to the game by changing the rule to a respectable one.

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