From August 12 to August 15 in 2010, the 92nd PGA Championship was held at the Straight Course at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wisconsin. The PGA Championship is considered one of golf’s majors and is 1/4 of its “grand slam,” along with the Masters, U.S. Open, and British Open. It is one of the most-important tournaments for PGA Tour golfers each season.
Yet, Kaymer’s victory wasn’t the biggest story of the day. As part of the last group, Dustin Johnson went into the fourth and final round at 10-under par. He remained so before he birdied both the 16th and 17th holes to move to 12-under par and take a 1-stroke lead.
On the 18th hole, Johnson bogeyed to apparently drop back a stroke to 11-under par and a tie for the lead. It looked as though he was joining Kaymer and Watson in the playoff and had a chance for a major win.
However, controversy arose on his second shot on the 18th. On that shot, Johnson’s golf ball was located in a sandy area next to a small hill and surrounded by the gallery. Johnson, with his 4-iron, approached the shot as a normal shot, grounding his club behind the ball before swinging.
When this occurred, Brad Gregory, a PGA official, was watching the final hole playing out on TV in the officials’ locker room. Gregory noticed that Johnson grounded his club twice in the “waste area” where his ball was located. Gregory knew that the rules of the course were that any area with sand was considered a sand trap. According to Rule 12.2 of the USGA Rules of Golf, a golfer is not allowed to ground his or her club in a sand trap prior to hitting the ball. Violation of this rule results in a 2-stroke penalty.
Johnson was completing his hole while all of this was being discussed. David Price, the rules official assigned to walk alongside the final pairing of Johnson and Nick Watney, didn’t see the infraction in person. Per the request of Johnson, Price had moved ahead of the pairing to move a section of the gallery. “I was notified via radio by one of our officials that Dustin may have touched the sand with his club while he was standing in it,” said Price in an interview with Golf.com.
Mark D. Wilson, the chairman of the Rules Committee, visited the CBS production truck to take a closer look at the video of Johnson’s shot. After review, he determined that Johnson had grounded his club twice and needed to be penalized 2 strokes.
With the situation taking so long to unfold, Johnson, his caddie, and the rest of the final group had no clue there was an issue until after they completed the 18th hole. At that point, CBS was replaying the shot as the announcers, along with millions of viewers, tried to figure out what had happened.
Wilson radioed to Price with the decision to penalize Johnson. Price met Johnson and Watney on the green and explained the entire situation to the both of them, even offering to lead them to the CBS production truck to review the shot in question. “There was a TV monitor right where we walked in the door, and CBS had highlighted everything but the ball,” Price recalled about the group entering the clubhouse. “Dustin looked at it, I looked at it, and we just walked into the scoring room without saying anything. There was a sense that we weren’t watching something good. Dustin’s manager David Winkle was in the there, and he had his hands on his knees, bent over looking at the floor. I could tell he was just sick.”
Johnson later admitted that he knew he had grounded his club, but he didn’t know it was a sand trap. He believed it was a waste area since there were people standing on it before he hit his ball into it and because it was outside the ropes. He also believed it had looked more like dirt than sand.
In the end, Johnson received the 2-stroke penalty. This bumped his score on the 18th hole to a 7, and it dropped him to 9-under par for the tournament, tying him for fifth place. He lost his opportunity for a spot in the playoff with Kaymer and Watson, as well as his first major victory.
The PGA Championship returned to Whistling Straits for the 2015 edition. To avoid such a mistake happening again, the PGA Tour placed grandstands on the sand trap that caused those headaches five years before.
In 2019, the Rules of Golf refined Rule 12.2. Although players are still not allowed to touch the sand in a sand trap to “test” it out or to take practice swings that clip the sand, unintentional touching of the sand was removed as a penalty.
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