No way. No $&#%(*%^#*%^*()#% way.
The PGA of America just made one of the two worst calls in the history of sport (the other being the 1972 summer Olympic basketball fiasco where the game was wrongly awarded to the Soviet Union). Outrageous. Crazy. Wrong. Unfair.
By denying Dustin Johnson a spot in the playoff at the PGA Championship because he (barely) grounded his club in what was deemed a bunker, the PGA showed itself not an entity protecting the rules and honor of sport, but instead a group of zero-tolerance nimrods who don’t know the difference between “no grass” and a hole in the ground.
For those who missed it, Johnson had a one-stroke lead when he hit his tee shot well right of the 18th fairway, into an area where the crowd was about 15-deep. When the ball landed, there were people literally standing over it on all sides, no more than a foot away. It was on a hillside where all the grass was trampled down in all directions. When Johnson got there, the announcer on the scene described it as bare soil. It looked like nothing other than a bare patch of ground.
Johnson, in taking his stance, barely — barely, infinitesimally — seemed to touch the ground with his club, perhaps disturbing about five grains of sand, if that. He then hit his shot, went on to make bogey to tie for the championship and apparently therefore qualify for a three-man playoff. Then, though, the nimrods decided that Johnson violated the rule against “grounding” a club in a bunker. They penalized him two strokes, thus keeping him out of the playoff.
The decision was utterly unnecessary. The lie was not improved. The outcome of the stroke (a bad pull to the left, into the rough) was not affected. And the ground where the ball lay was not a bunker! There was no way, none at all, to identify the area as a bunker. People were standing there before Johnson’s ball landed there. (How often do fans stand in a bunker? Never.) People were still standing there as he was playing his shot. Announcer David Feherty went back there afterwards and stood in it and still couldn’t identify it as a bunker. There was no lip. There was no definition. It looked like just part of the hillside.
But the PGA cited a local rule, published at the very top of the rules given to all the players at the start of the week, which explained that any bunker on the course was to be played as a hazard (where the no-grounding-the-club rule applies), rather than as a “waste bunker” where club grounding is allowed.
Wait. Rewind. It is one thing to make clear that all areas that look like bunkers, even behind gallery ropes where bunkers usually don’t exist, are to be played as normal, yes, bunkers. It is quite another thing to declare that something that doesn’t even look like a bunker should be treated as a bunker just because loose sand — on a ground made entirely of sandy soil — happens to be there.
The definition of bunker in the Rules of Golf is as follows: “A bunker is a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand or the like.”
Read that again. The ground must be deliberately designed — “a prepared area of ground” — to be a bunker in order for it to be considered a bunker and a hazard. It must be a place “from which turf or soil has been removed.” And it must be a place where the removed soil has been “replaced with sand.”
Where Dustin Johnson’s ball rested, there was no evidence that the ground had been “prepared” as a bunker. There was no evidence that turf or soil had been deliberately “removed” rather than just naturally eroded due to thousands upon thousands of feet of fans trampling it during the week. And there was no evidence that sand had been added — that the soil had deliberately been “replaced,” which indicates outside action — with sand, rather than just being a natural part of the terrain.
Not “prepared.” Strike one against the PGA officials. Not “removed.” Strike two. Not “replaced.” Strike out.
At the very, very, very least, the situation was wide open to interpretation. It wasn’t clear that the ground was a hazard known as a bunker. For that matter, it wasn’t even clear that Johnson “grounded” the club anyway. And even if he did, barely, do so, he also was standing on the side of a slope trying to keep his balance. No, he wasn’t exactly “falling,” but he wasn’t standing in balance by any means, either. Rule 13-4 provides that there shall be no penalty “providing nothing is done which constitutes testing the condition of the hazard or improves the lie of the ball… as a result or to prevent falling.” The common application of this rule is that if a player has a funny stance and is wobbling and inadvertently touches the sand without improving the lie, there is “no harm, no foul.” Granted, this is the PGA, not a club social, so the rules must be stricter. But for these purposes, the clause about “nothing [involving] testing the condition… or improv[ing] the lie” is more the point of the rule than is the precise definition of “falling.” The rules are intended to protect against unfair advantage, not to provide bureaucrats a reason to invalidate the actual results of the human effort involved in playing the game.
In most systems of law, there is an overarching rule that always applies: Laws are not to be considered as if in a vacuum, but rather are to be read in conjunction with all the other laws or rules in the code being applied.
In this case, there is some question about the “grounding” of the club, serious disputes about all three operative clauses (“prepared,” “removed,” “replaced”) defining a bunker, and no doubt whatsoever that Johnson neither tested the condition of the hazard nor improved his lie. Read in conjunction, all of those rule anomalies mitigate against a penalty even if only one of those anomalies would not allow any discretion.
All of which brings into play Rule 1-4. It reads as follows: “If any point is not covered by the Rules, the decision shall be made in accordance with equity.”
Equity. “Equity” is defined by my Webster’s as “justice according to natural law or right” and as “… rules developed to enlarge, supplement or override a narrow rigid system of law.” There can be no doubt, no doubt whatsoever, no doubt under the heavens, that equity requires that Johnson’s score on the hole be scored according to the number of strokes he actually took. Equity overrides “a narrow or rigid system of law” especially when that system itself provides for “equity” in the case of a point being not definitively covered by the Rules as written. In short, equity allows for the good discretion of common sense.
The lawyer Philip K. Howard is known for his best-selling book The Death of Common Sense, the main point of which is that the area of equity ought to be expanded in the civil law and the expanse of narrow rigidity of senseless rules. In a game where sportsmanship reigns supreme, the sportsmanship should trump a rules rigidity of blindered and blinkered officials.
This is not like the famous cases involving scorecards mis-signed. While a penalty for a mis-signed scorecard may lead to a result that doesn’t seem fair, at least it does not involve any interpretation. Either the card was signed or it wasn’t. The official has no discretion. But in Johnson’s case on Sunday, there did indeed exist at least some discretion in adjudging what happened, on what sort of ground. Where discretion exists, and where equity overwhelmingly favors a ruling of “no harm, no foul,” then equity should prevail.
The PGA blew it. The fans were robbed of the three-way playoff that should have ensued. Victor Martin Kaymer was robbed of the sure knowledge that he had won fair and square, and of the recognition by the public that his win was untainted. And, of course, Dustin Johnson was robbed of a chance of a golfing lifetime to hoist above his head one of the four greatest trophies in the game.
The PGA has something on its face, and it may not even be egg. It smells a lot worse than rotten eggs. The game of golf was not ennobled yesterday (except by Johnson’s classy acceptance of his fate); it was polluted. Call it the Polluted Golf Association Championship, and banish its Sunday decision-makers to the outer realm of darkness where all officious, invasive, commonsense-less nimrods should reside.