Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Unfair to Kaymer, but he is not the story of the week – it’s the course, rules official and Dustin Johnson

Honestly, I don’t mind the driving—as I’ve said before I kind of enjoy it—but it can make the return trip feel pretty long when you have a lot to do when you get home. But I’m at last home from Whistling Straits.

Let me pause here to mention Martin Kaymer, the PGA champion, a guy who has a chance to become a real star. I mention him here because that’s the last time I’m going to mention him today because, unfairly, he’s not the story of the week.

Anyway…On Sunday night I left a message for Frank Nobilo and Brandel Chamblee, my colleagues at Golf Channel (since I wasn’t on the postgame show except for an essay): “I told you it was a goofy golf course!”

Brandel, Frank and I had spent a good deal of time arguing about Whistling Straits during the week. It wasn’t as if they loved it, but they defended it on the grounds that it brought all sort of different players into the mix. My friend Paul Goydos said this about that: “Any golf course can bring different kind of players into the mix. The difference is, on most golf courses today, the bombers have more margin for error and can recover from mistakes more easily.”

I also pointed out that no one on earth thought much of Valhalla as a golf course and it produced one of the great PGA finishes ever: The Tiger Woods-Bob May playoff in 2000. You couldn’t find two players more different but there they were. Did that make Valhalla a great golf course? No.

My complaint with the place has always been the same: Herb Kohler told Pete Dye to spare no expense to create a golf course that looked like Scotland or Ireland in Wisconsin. Fine. Except it doesn’t play anything LIKE a links. It plays like a regular old American target golf course. When both the USGA and PGA of America began looking at it as a possible site they were both told there was one major potential problem: morning fog. So why was ANYONE surprised when the first two days were delayed by fog. Heck, from what I was told by the locals—the ones in Sheboygan were very friendly—they were lucky not to have fog every day given the heat and humidity (not to mention the mosquitoes. The local Target ran OUT of bug spray by Wednesday).

And then there were the goofy bunkers. Kohler, who has an ego the size of Wisconsin, wanted more bunkers than anyone had ever built on a golf course. Well, you can only put in so many that are actually in play unless you simply create a beach with tees and greens at either end for each hole. So, Pete Dye put in bunches of bunker way right and way left on most holes—essentially out of play but not ALWAYS out of play.

The only way for spectators to get around the golf course at all was to walk THROUGH the bunkers. In 2004, the PGA made some of those bunkers waste areas, others bunkers. It created confusion, especially when Stuart Appleby thought he was in a waste area when he was, in fact, in a bunker and committed two violations—laying his club down and grounding his club. So, to be consistent, the PGA this time around said they’re ALL bunkers. It posted that fact on the local rules sheet in the locker room—I remember reading it Wednesday and thinking, ‘jeez, I’d hate to see someone land in a footprint with the tournament on the line,’—and even made that comment on-air at one point.

In fact, that didn’t occur. Something worse did. Let’s briefly review who screwed up after Dustin Johnson blew his tee shot to the right at the 18th hole on Sunday: How about everyone?

There’s no excuse at all for Johnson not having read the local rules sheet. Or at the very least for his caddy not to have read it and have it in his bag. Local rules sheets are not only posted in locker rooms every week, they’re on the first tee when players show up to play. The starter puts out a table that usually has tees on it; pin sheets; snacks AND the local rules sheet. In fact, if there’s something new or unusual—like a new water hazard on a course that might be staked in a way that could be confusing—the starter might make a point of saying, ‘be sure to read the rule about the new hazard on No. 12.’

Johnson and his caddy messed up by not having read the sheet. Ultimately, a player is responsible for knowing the rules and if he has any doubt there are rules officials who can answer any questions.

Which brings us to David Price. Just for background here is how rules officials work at major championships (other than the Masters) that’s different than a regular tour event. At tour events, there are anywhere from eight-to-ten fulltime rules officials who roam the golf course in carts. If someone needs a ruling, they get a call on the radio, drive to the spot and help the player out. The players trust them implicitly about 99 percent of the time because this is what they do for a living.

At The U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, there is a walking rules official with each group. At the U.S. Open on the last two days the last 10 groups also have an ‘observer,’—also a rules official—whose job it is to stay ahead of the play to warn the rules person that there may be a problem. If he sees Tiger Woods’ ball lying on a TV cable, he will radio back to say, ‘Woods’s ball is on a TV cable,’ so the rules official knows he needs to go there to tell Woods his options. Or he might let him know someone’s ball is in a hazard or out-of-bounds.

The walking rules official with the Johnson-Nick Watney group on Sunday was Price, a club pro from Texas. Most of the rules officials at the majors are NOT fulltime rules officials. They’re men and women who have other jobs, who have passed a rules test and who take off three or more weeks a year to work at golf tournaments.

Through the years I’ve met a lot of them. I liked most of them. They’re golf nuts, who love the game and love to tell stories about the work they’ve done and the people (players) they’ve met through the years. They’re volunteers at this so all credit to them.

Price is both experienced and respected. He’s co-chairman of The PGA of America rules committee along with Mark Wilson and he’s walked with the last group on Sunday at the last six PGA’s. It is fair to say he knows his stuff.

And he blew it on Sunday.

On Monday, I talked to five different rules officials I know well. Here’s the synopsis of what they all said: “Officiating 101—when a players hits a ball into a crowd you go there RIGHT AWAY. You have to establish the state of the ball. Did it hit someone? Did it get stepped on? Is it on someone’s lap? Under someone’s chair? In a hazard?.” Next step: “Make sure the player knows you’re there. His mind can be anywhere at that moment. Let him know you’re there to help AND if he’s in a hazard, REMIND HIM.’ Usually those last two words apply to water, where a spot might be red-staked but it is a little more than a ditch and a player’s ball may be on dry land but still in the hazard. “Usually what you say is something like, ‘now you know you’re in the hazard,’ said one—‘even though 99 times out of 100 they know. You don’t want the 100th time to become a disaster.’

In this case it was even more important for Price to say something to Johnson. He was intent on many different things: clearing space so he could play a shot; getting a yardage; figuring out what the best play was; trying to calm himself down with a chance to win the PGA. When Johnson asked Price to help get the crowd moved ALL Price had to do was say, ‘you’ve got it Dustin. By the way, remember under the local rule here, you’re in a bunker even though people have walked there and there’s no rake.”

That’s ALL he had to do. But he didn’t do it. He just walked away. On Monday, Price told ESPN-Dallas (I hate to credit them but fair is fair) that Johnson had asked him a couple of bunker-related questions (involving bunkers INSIDE the ropes) earlier in the round and, thus, he didn’t feel the need to remind him he couldn’t ground his club.

“All he had to do was ask me,” Price said.

That is, to put it very politely, a bunch of hooey. All HE had to do was tell him. Johnson’s knowledge of the rules in a hazard wasn’t at issue his knowledge that he was IN a hazard was at issue. Question for the self-righteous Mr. Price: What damage would have been done if you HAD taken five seconds to tell him? The damage done by NOT telling him is there for all of us to see.

Price should thank God—or whomever he prays to—that Johnson didn’t make his par putt. As it is this is only the worst golf debacle since Roberto DiVincenzo signed for the wrong score knocking himself out of a playoff with Bob Goalby at the 1968 Masters. Goalby, by the way, never thought he was treated with the respect due a Masters champion. But then he was pretty crusty to begin with. Kaymer is not but he has to know more people will talk about the Johnson/Price blunders—and Price needs to be in the sentence—and Bubba Watson going brain dead on the 18th hole during the playoff, than about his victory.

Which is unfair. But the whole thing was unfair: Goofy golf course; bad local rule; HORRIBLE officiating and a big-time mental error by a player on the verge of what would have been a remarkable victory after his meltdown at Pebble Beach.

The PGA is back at Whistling Straits in five years. I doubt if anyone will miss me if I’m not there.


Jason Connor said...

Great post John.

Here's something I thought was funny: Pete Dye is the man who invented stadium golf courses, courses made for premiere tournaments and meant to handle tens of thousands of spectators easily.

Yet Mr Dye designed such a Mickey Mouse course here that spectators couldn't help but stand and walk in hazards!

Anonymous said...


You hit this issue right on the head. I spent the day listening to uninformed sports talk show hosts talk about how unfair the ruling was to Johnson, when the real issue was with the rules official's error of omission and Johnson's failure to read the local rules sheet. I even listened to an interview with a local PGA pro who disagreed with the ruling, based on the fact that Johnson's club touching the sand did not give him an unfair advantage on the shot. What planet does this guy live on?
The guiding value here, whether you are a rules official, opponent or playing partner is to be proactive with the rules. A simple reminder that Johnson's ball was in the bunker was inexplicably never given, despite any prior discussions Price may have had with the player.
Yes, the rules of golf can be very penal, but everyone involved in this unfortunate event knew the rules perfectly. The problem was on the official's failure to point out the hazard and Johnson's lack of awareness at a critical moment.
Thanks for being, once again, a voice of reason.

Ray said...

At this level of golf no matter where the golfers mind might be it is still their responsibility to know the rules. The official shouldn't need to remind them. How often in the NBA, MLB, NFL or NHL do the officials need to tell at manager or coach that they can't do something or remind them of the rules. It is, in this case, the players ultimate responsibilty to know the course. With something as important as a major, I know I would read and reread the local rules. To put most of the blame on Mr. Price is unfair, while he does share in some of the blame at most it can be about 1%. It is not his job to do the "coaching" of the players, his job is to interpret the rules and give answers to questions asked of him. His job is not to provide unsolicited rules interpretations.
While this comment is long as it is I feel that this quote is appropo about the roles of officials in general when it comes to sports: "Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire. ......... And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat."

Ed Tracey... said...

John, thanks for taking that PGA official to task. This exemplifies why I can't take the PGA seriously; that professional golf is a mere point of interest to me as a general sports fan and not something I truly care about (I am not including the game itself).

It may well be that the notices of these sand patches were posted as bunkers - and yes, I know that the PGA's supporters are not relishing Johnson's fall (they may well be hoping he wins a major someday) and yes, the rules must be followed even when the rules are an a**.

But rules like this are an a**. What makes the PGA so appealing to so many (a gentleman's game, code-of-honor and all that) - and perhaps makes it a superior sport in their eyes: are what makes this a travesty in my eyes.

That something like this and the Roberto DeVincenzo case are permitted to take place is sad. No, they clearly aren't "just like us" - they wouldn't be gaining all these endorsements and appearing on TV if they were.

I do feel sorry for Martin Kaymer; hopefully he won't have an asterisk next to his name as a result of this mess.

Anonymous said...

And they're playing the Ryder Cup there in 10 years. Yeah . . .

Pete Williamson said...

John, you probably don't read all your emails, but I sent you one about this incident and I am glad (but not surprised) to see that you agree with me. You hit all the key points in your post. I would take it a step further, however. To me the PGA is the least major of the majors and that organization just doesn't seem to get it. The local rule at this tournament is a prefect example, but so is the fact that they dilute the field with the 20-25 club pros they include. I would like to see the tour players get together and designate the Players Championship as the 4th major going forward. That would be enough. If the players decide what they want the majors to be than those will be accepted by everyone eventually. Will it happen... probably not, but that is what I would like to see.

George said...

This course is like Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch...a joke.


WES said...

Ray --

You ask "How often in the NBA, MLB, NFL or NHL do the officials need to tell at manager or coach that they can't do something or remind them of the rules." I'd say the answer to that is "pretty often."

Two examples come quickly to mind and I'm sure there are others: In baseball, if a fielder throws a ball into the stands, the umpires tell the runners which bases they are entitled to do; he doesn't let the runners figure it our themselves and call them out if they get it wrong. In basketball, on EVERY inbounds play under the basket, the referee either points to the spot or waves his arm to indicate that the inbounder can run the baseline.

Price should have made the common-sense gesture of saying to Johnson, "Remember you're in a bunker." He didn't, and we know what followed.

Ray said...

The umpires job is to tell the runners what base they are entitled to. At the time of the throw the umpire determines where that runner was, i.e. had he reached 2nd base then they would get home but if not 3rd. Again it is the umpires job to inform the runners where to go not the runners job to decide where to go. In basketball the officals are again doing what is part of their job, they decide where the ball went out of play and where the inbounds would go. they do not let the players decide where the ball went out, so yet again they are doing their job.

The officials don't stop when there are 6 men on the line of scrimmage and tell the coach to put 7 there. That is to me a similar example of the Johnson situation. The coach & players know the rule.

Also if sense were common everyone would have it.

Anonymous said...

If it is a game based on self policing, honor, integrity and character, what is the need to have overlords go back from a TV truck or with the official on hand and impose penalties? I know I know, this is 'how it's done' but it really defies logic when you really thing about it.

I tend to agree with this general premise - if rules officials are going to be with every group, shouldn't they actually be there with guidance, even unsolicited?

Mark said...

I thought there was a long tradition in professional golf where players called their own penalties on themselves. What is that story?

deepvalue said...

Doesn't even appear to me he was in a bunker. It looks like a sandy path out of a bunker created by fans walking back towards the hole.

When was the last time fans were sitting and standing in the bunker where the leader was hitting his approach to the final hole? No wonder DJ couldn't tell where he was.

There is a laundry list of problems with this situation. Pete Dye's two main design characteristics are 1. Visual intimidation off the tee. In other words, he makes it appear there's no room to hit your ball even though the fairway is wide open. 2. WASTE AREAS - these are the low maintenance sandy areas where the club can be grounded. So, by calling them bunkers the PGA basically reversed the very design characteristic that Dye is famous for. DUH!

Remember Stewart Cink at Harbor Town? He drew a line in the sand behind his ball using his finger. That was a Pete Dye waste area and the PGA said it was A-OK. Double duh!

I could go on...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Price is not an umpire or a referee, he is a rules official. His job is to assess situations and make sure that every golfer has the ability to play his ball in a fair and equal manner. Ray, your are correct, Mr. Price is under no obligation to tell Dustin Johnson that he was actually in a bunker when he was dealing with the stress of winning the PGA. But that is the difference between a good official and one who probably got caught mailing it in at the wrong time.

gordon said...


I hate to say your wrong but you are WRONG!

This is not the least bit about David Price. This is and was the fault of Dustin Johnson. He and other players admitted to not having read the local rules sheets. Several said that they never read them. It is the responsibility of Johnson and his caddy to know the rules. David Price was there to clarify and advise. He is an official not a babysitter. Could he have said something yes. Was he obligated to say something ABSOLUTELY NOT. The player or caddy is responsible for his/her actions. DJ has no one but himself to blame. Simply put HE DIDN'T ASK! I've heard many say that "something was taken away from Dustin Johnson". The fact he he gave it away. Players need to read and know the rules, local and otherwise and hen in doubt ask for a rules clarification.

The PGA is in a small way complicet by choosing ANY Pete Dye course. Dye is the most over rated designer in the history of golf.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of Whistling Straits, either. I don't see what's so "spectacular" about it on TV. It looks like Goofy Golf on Steroids to me. Any time you have so many sand traps that they can't be counted, and the course has been around for years, you have a problem that could/should be prevented. I think it's a case of Kohler and Dye's egos BOTH running amok. Let the Ryder Cup in a few years be the last noteworthy event to go there, but I doubt it. Kohler will cut a check with the proceeds from your toidy.

Anonymous said...

You are dead wrong and should be ashamed of yourself for trying to deflect the blame. You almost sound like you're on Dustin Johnson's payroll.

In fact, I'll go one further. You are a disgrace to sportswriting disingenuously comparing Rocco Mediate's situation in 2008 (involving a ball out of play) to Dustin's situation (where the ball was always in play and did not require input from an official at any time).

Shame on you!

Dave said...


Sorry to say but you are wrong and so are the many armchair quarterbacks here agreeing with you.

I have played in a multitude of tournaments both as a professional and amateur and feel very bad for Dustin but...

Lesson learned by DJ & his caddy for CHOOSING to be uninformed by not reading the rules sheet and obviously ignoring the notices posted in the players' locker room. How many professional golf tournaments have you played in John? It is ALWAYS the responsibility of the player and the player alone to know the rules. When knowing the rules a player would or at least should NEVER perform any action when in an ambiguous situation.

Dustin stepped in that BUNKER and proceeded to ground his club and then stepped back pointing at the sand perhaps realizing his error. Whatever he then said to his caddy and all watching was a subconcious attemt to justify his actions. He was hoping he was right but wasn't sure if he made a mistake or not. Damage already done, he grounded his club again as part of his normal routine which in a way for Dustin was his personal exclamation point that I MADE NO ERROR. WRONG! When he first grounded his club I was shocked and knew he would be called. Was not surprised at all.

There can be no blame placed on anyone else except perhaps his caddy who is an integral part of the team.

It was known by all that Whistling Straits is littered with bunkers and all are in play and the rules committee took special care to make sure all players were well informed.

Citing the Rocco Mediate example during the 2008 U.S. Open playoff when he was in the process of a drop procedure into a drop zone is preposterous. Of course the official would intervene as the player was in the midst of performing a special procedure. In Dustin's case there was no special procedure except for parting the crowd. It is not the rules official's role to inform Dustin of this at all!! If Dustin was not sure he should have asked. He was not sure after he first grounded his club wasn't he?!!

Believe me when I say as an experienced golfer & competitor, if your ball rests in sandy soil, the first question before performing any action is; IS THIS A BUNKER?

That being said, blaming Herb Kohler's ego for building such a course and Pete Dye for obliging him along with everyone else including Dustin and his caddy is equally preposterous.

John you are entitled to your opinion but in this case it is truly an uninformed and unsubstatiated one. Why do I say this? Because you don't have the qualifications or experience to boast of such nonsense. Please keep your ego in check.

*** said...

With due respect to Ed - and I seem to be shockingly in the minority on this - I can't believe that the Dustin Johnson situation is even a controversy. Johnson's ball obviously lay in a bunker. As USGA official David Price has stated, it never occurred to him that he needed to assertively tell Dustin that the bunker was a bunker because it was never in doubt. As I watched David Feherty stand in what was obviously a bunker say that it was not a bunker and you watch replay after replay of Johnson's ball sitting in the middle of nothing but sand I was and remain baffled. It is disappointing that, in a year that where golf celebrated its preemiment role in sportsmanship with Brian Davis calling a penalty on himself for something that was almost imperceptible even in slow motion replay, so many commentators and smart golf people are whining about this simply because they feel sorry for DJ. Pure and simple, Dustin Johnson and his caddy blew it, made a bonehead mistake. Emotionally, we may feel for Dustin but but blaming the officials or the USGA or being in denial about whether or not he was in a bunker is absurd.

Anonymous said...

All the people in this blog claiming they knew it was a bunker blah blah blah. Horsecrap. He could see 10 feet around him so how could he tell. The course is a cow pasture and people are standing in the hazards and right in his ball flight. The only thing that would have made this worse is if DJ's ball would have hit a kid and killed them hitting a shot. Then the PGA would see the real problem in all of this. Get the fans out of the way, the best solution to this debacle is to just drop this venue. Then MR. Kohler will realize his gimmick of a golf course isn't worthy of the professionals time.

Anonymous said...

It looks like Dustin's ball may have been on a patch of sand that was moved outside of the confines of the bunker as originally designed. If so, then his ball was not in a hazard and no penalty should have been assessed. The focus on the local rule likely made the PGA rules committee jump too quickly to the conclusion that there was a penalty. Too many people are looking for fault when the fault lies in the rules of golf. Water hazards are marked with stakes or lines which removes most of the player's judgement in determining if they are in a hazard. Bunkers have no such demarcation and therefore, unless the course design is supplied to the player indicating the location of all bunkers, it should be up to the player to determine if he is in the bunker. Dustin determined he was not in the bunker and the rules committee overturned his judgement.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the party so I'm sure no one will even see this but here goes. I agree that putting too much blame on Price is inappropriate. Saying something to DJ would have been a nice gesture, but it was not his responsibility. I'd like to know if he was even aware that the ball was in a bunker at the time or if he found that out over the radio after the fact.
In response to Dave's assersion that DJ realized his error when he stepped away and somehow tried to disguise his guilt: you are wrong. The reason he stepped away was because some patrons were moving around causing a small beam of light to break through the shadows they were creating, and the light was moving around on his ball. He pointed out the problem to the fans and asked them to stand still before recomposing himself and making his 2nd address of the ball.
Contrary to what Anonymous says, I could see a distinct bunker lip in front of and to the right of DJ’s ball as soon as the angle from behind him was shown. When he grounded his club the 1st time (before stepping away), I said, "Uh oh," thinking he may have committed a penalty. My question was/is the same as deepvalue, "How can we be sure he was actually in the bunker & not in some sand that was kicked out into the rough (i.e., where was the line between bunker & rough)?" This gets back to the problem of letting spectators walk in bunkers & how to handle it; I had the same thought as JF concerning a ball in a footprint deciding the outcome.
In the end, Johnson should have known the rules, and when he saw his ball resting on sand, if there was any doubt about bunker/no bunker, he should have called in Price for a ruling before proceeding.

john homans said...

After all the golf books he has written and tournaments covered over the years, Feinstein is apparently clueless on the role of PGA rules officials. In Feinstein’s world, officials are there to hold the hands of the competitors and offer “helpful hints” during the round to help them avoid penalties. Feinstein didn’t address how officials determine what golfer to follow in the group (Ah....screw Watney, he won’t even break 80!) as surely there are times when both golfers hit it outside the ropes. Perhaps Feinstein believes that officials should escort the golfer higher up on the leaderboard.

Justin had consulted with Mr. Price on holes #14 and #16, and Mr. Price even asked Dustin if he needed help on #18. But this was not enough for Feinstein, who believes that Price should have offered his helpful hints on proper bunker play. Even though Steve Elkington, watching from locker room, knew immediately that Dustin was in a bunker (he read the rules sheet!) Feinstein thinks Price should have recognized that Dustin and his caddy are not rules readers and therefore would benefit from a helpful hint. Price should also have recognized that Dustin tends to ground his club in these types of lies, as many players, including commentator Nick Faldo, do not.

Since these walking officials are only with the top groups, I would be interested in hearing Feinstein’s opinion on whether he thinks the top groups benefit from an unfair advantage, as the rest of the field is out there naked without the benefit of helpful hints from the PGA professionals

Call me an ol’ stick-in-the-mud, but I kind of prefer the old fashioned way of rules officiating, when rules officials simply walked with groups and made themselves available for consultation, which is exactly what Price did on Sunday.

Anonymous said...

PGA officials kept saying that the players had been made aware in a POSTED WRITTEN statement about what constituted a bunker. I'm still waiting for the brain dead golf press (which unfortunately included the golf channel) to ask this question: "Why in your written warning to the players did you not include the following sentence: Please understand with this bunker ruling that for the first time in your career in the PGA, Nationwide Tour, College Golf, Junior Golf, and probably your local golf course YOU WILL BE ASKED TO EXECUTE A SHOT WITH SPECTATORS STANDING WITHIN THE BUNKER WITH YOU AS YOU EXECUTE YOUR SHOT."