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.