Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bunker Mentality: How Golf Can Dig Itself Out of a Hole

Whatever you thought about Dustin Johnson getting flagged for unintentional grounding on the final hole of the PGA Championship, this much we all agree on:

The rule was applied correctly.

You may think the rule unfair or feel badly for Johnson, but you can't deny the PGA got it right in penalizing him 2 strokes - even if they were only enforcing an ill-conceived caveat of a quirky course.

Where opinions begin splintering like spectators' ankles on the hills of Whistling Straits is whether or not what happened to Johnson was fair - not so much technically but in the spirit of the game. Golf isn't necessarily supposed to be fair; but the adjudication of the rules by a tournament's governing body must be if that body is to have any integrity. And if the punishment meted out by the PGA to Johnson wasn't cruel, it was unusual.

To wit: Johnson and others who were in contention Sunday were under a different degree of scrutiny than other players and at other times of the championship. For all we know, numerous players could have done the same thing Johnson did in that bunker at 18 in moments not captured by TV cameras.

Some argue the more intense surveillance is part of a player's surviving the crucible of a major championship Sunday. And to be fair, any player - whether on the final hole of a major or the first round of a weekly Tour event - caught by TV cameras or even by nearby journalists (remember Michelle Wie being Bambergered in 2005?) have been and can be penalized via video after the round is over.

That's wrong.

The PGA of America was absolutely right to penalize Johnson based on the rules established prior to the championship, rules Johnson admitted he hadn't read. But when they penalized him - after he'd completed the hole - was patently unfair.

The PGA rules official following the final group, in this case David Price of Dallas, was not obligated to make Johnson aware that he was in a bunker, not simply a browned-out patch of spectator-stomped sod. But the rules committee, chaired by Price and Mark Wilson, had a moral obligation to notify Johnson of his infraction immediately, not after he finished the hole.

I learned Sunday night after the championship that members of the PGA of America championship staff, including those on the rules committee, were watching Johnson play 18 and saw him violate the local rule that declared all bunkers on the course - regardless of their appearance or condition - should be played as such, thus prohibiting a player from grounding his club in them.

So they knew Johnson would be penalized two strokes before he arrived at his ball left of the green, where he believed he lay 2 but in fact lay 4. There was ample time between their realization of the violation and when Johnson hit what he thought was his third shot for the committee to radio Price with what they saw happen and for Price to notify Johnson.

Even though he was guilty according to the local rules, Johnson deserved to know he was hitting 5, not 3, while he still had the opportunity to do something about his score - for that hole and for the championship. Had he been told he actually lay 4, Johnson would have attempted that pitch shot from left of the green knowing he needed to hole it to get into a playoff instead of doing what he did, which was try to merely get it up and down for what he thought would be his first major.

No one wanted to see Brian Davis lose a playoff at Harbour Town this year by calling a penalty on himself for nicking a root in the hazard left of 18 - including Furyk who repeatedly asked Davis if he was sure he'd done it. But there was a sense of honor in the Englishman's mea culpa. And we all left there thinking what a great game this is we play and follow.

What happened at Whistling Straits didn't feel honorable. It felt legal. And empty. And it shouldn't happen again.

Here's what could happen:

Rules officials could give themselves - like in other sports - the time it takes between plays to decide if a player has violated a rule. If an official clearly sees a broken rule - either live or on video - the player would be notified immediately of the appropriate penalty.

If, however, a violation goes unnoticed before the player hits the next shot, the window for punishment would be closed. Yes, the possibility would exist for a player to get away with a violation because it wasn't detected in time. But I think a more likely scenario would be that players would actually pay more attention to the rules. No player wants to win a tournament, only to have the victory tainted because of something viewers noticed but a tournament official did not - or at least not quickly enough to impose a penalty.

Replay protocol in other sports is far from perfect and is continually refined. Professional golf's version, what we saw on display at the PGA Championship, is the worst possible kind. It's time for the governing bodies of the major championships and the PGA Tour to change it.

Ultimately, golf prides itself on being a game in which players call penalties on themselves. If tournament officials believe that's not good enough, they should at least have the courtesy of making justice swift. Swift enough for the players to determine the outcome, not a television.

Dustin Johnson got what he deserved but not when he deserved it. Justice delayed is justice denied.


Brock Paulk said...

glad you're back to blogging, and glad I kept the subscription in my rss reader!

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