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Dustin Johnson & The Rules of Golf

The PGA Championship was, in a word, memorable.

Many would argue, though, not necessarily in a good way. Not because of who won (Martin Kaymer), and not because who didn’t (Tiger Woods). No, many will remember the 2010 PGA Championship for one call that might not have been if it weren’t for a rule that was put up specifically for the Whistling Straits golf course. It was also an issue that I have thought about for quite awhile after the tournament was over.

It has been a week since the conclusion of the prestigious tournament. But, for those who didn’t see it on Sunday, up-and-coming golfer Dustin Johnson was on the verge of winning his first major at the PGA, one year after suffering a heart-breaking defeat at Bethpage Black for the U.S. Open championship.

Holding a one-stroke lead, Johnson failed to par the final hole, tying Kaymer and Bubba Watson. Coming off the disappointment of not clinching the title in regulation, Johnson was about to receive even more devastating news. After reviewing his play on a previous shot at the 18th, it was shown that Johnson clearly downed his club – twice – at an apparent bunker. Downing a club (putting one’s club down to the ground as if ready to shoot) at a bunker and failing to shoot results in an automatic one-stroke penalty. As a result, Johnson was forced to turn in a scorecard with the two-stroke penalty, disqualifying him from a playoff with Kaymer and Watson for the PGA title.

“I hate Sundays.”

While While everyone felt for Johnson – after all, he was painfully close to a major win for the second time in two years, only to lose – some were almost forced to declare “the only one to blame was himself for the loss.” Ultimately, it was made perfectly clear in the rules, i.e. it was posted on the clubhouse door:

“All areas of the course that were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as sand bunkers [hazards] whether or not they have been raked. This will mean that many bunkers positioned outside of the ropes as well as some areas of bunkers inside the ropes, close to the rope line, will likely include numerous footprints, heel prints and tire tracks during the play of the Championship. Such irregularities of surface are part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions.”

I remember watching the shot, myself, thinking he was hitting out of a bunker. While Johnson insisted he had no idea that he was hitting out of a bunker, the rules of the course prevailed in the end, and he was forced to bite the bullet, taking the loss.

And, here, my friends, is where I am fundamentally torn.

I have been watching golf for years, and have actually began taking up golf, myself. So, to a certain extent, I understand that one of the appeals of golf is its traditional sense of honor, based on two things: 1) a fierce adherence to the rules, and 2) personal accountability. After all, golf is an individual sport – despite the many media interpretations to the contrary, it is one person vs. the course; one person vs. herself.

If anyone has seen “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” you probably understand what I am talking about – the main character, Rannulph Junuh, is forced to give himself a one-stroke penalty because his ball moved one inch. While his caddy, Hardy Greaves, was adamant in stopping him, not wanting to jeopardize his chances of winning on “a stupid rule,” Junuh insists on the penalty. Through this action, he illustrates a sense of nobility in the game of golf.

“It’s a stupid rule that don’t mean nothin’!”

However, two years of sociological understanding of social justice have led me to think that, despite all that, at the basic human level, Johnson was ultimately screwed out of a fair chance to redeem himself. A fair chance to win an elusive major. A fair chance – a truly fair chance – of winning.

After the ruling was made that the two-stroke penalty was to be assessed, everyone, regardless of their interpretation of the rule, was in agreement: they felt awful for Johnson. On top of that, no one doubted that Johnson sincerely thought that he was not in a bunker. Unfortunately, the rule was not as merciful – which leads me to my ultimate problem with the entire situation. In a game which has rules that have no real room for interpretation based on the player’s perspective, situations like Johnson’s are bound to arise.

While one could argue that it’s for that same reason that provides a hidden beauty for the game, someone else could easily look at the arbitrary nature of golf rules. When bylaws force a player to penalize themselves a stroke for hitting a dead blade of grass, it isn’t surprising for anyone to cry foul. Ultimately, however, it broke down to a matter of personal accountability on the perspective of Johnson. He should have known the rule – it was clear as day.

Yet, in so many cases that I have found (but not ALL), personal accountability has long been a cop-out for the prevailing systems of society, in order to relieve themselves of any blame. The spirit of the rule may have been violated, but it was an honest mistake, that ultimately cost him a championship. Afterward, the rules committee couldn’t be remorseful, because they were “handcuffed to the rules.” While this strict adherence to the rules is seen as an appreciable quality of the game by many golf purists, I have to look at it as it really is: another perverted form of sports bureaucracy. Some of my colleagues have been vocal, saying that Johnson was screwed for those exact reasons.

So, it boils down to a clear-cut case of personal accountability vs. humanistic fairness for one’s “fellow man.” But let me break it down even further: simply put, it is a case of what the rules say should be done, vs. what should actually be done. Perhaps little Hardy Greaves was right, after all – one should take a second look at “stupid”, arbitrary rules, and decide whether it is really fair.

Because, ultimately, for Johnson, his penalty was based on rule. But it definitely wasn’t fair.

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