Rules School: Explaining The Dustin Johnson Ruling From The 2010 PGA Championship

Jan 24, 2012

By Mark Wilson

This article is the fifth in a six-part series exploring the history of The Rules of Golf. The objective of this series is to give the reader greater clarity on why Rules changes occur and what factors are considered when making, or not making, a Rules change. In conjunction with The R&A, the USGA writes, interprets and maintains The Rules of Golf to uphold the tradition and integrity of the game. The two organizations are joint authors and owners of The Rules of Golf and Decisions on the Rules of Golf. The Rules are revised on a quadrennial basis, with the next revision scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2012.

Note about the author: Mark Wilson is the head golf professional at Watermark Country Club in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has been a member of the PGA of America Rules Committee since 1990, serving as a Rules official in over 50 Major championships and seven Ryder Cups. Wilson was the Rules Chair for the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

The story of Dustin Johnson’s unfortunate penalty on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship for grounding his club in one of Whistling Straits’ approximately 1,200 bunkers actually began in the early summer of 2004.

That’s when a meeting took place in preparation for the 2004 PGA Championship, scheduled for that August. The primary issue to be resolved at that meeting was: How would the numerous sand-filled areas at this golf course be treated? Would they be played as bunkers or through the green? (Note, the term “waste bunker” has no meaning under the Rules of Golf. These areas commonly referred to as such are correctly known as “through the green.”)

The decision was actually easy to make once those involved were on-site. After consulting with Pete Dye, the course architect, Kerry Haigh, The PGA of America’s managing director of championships and business development, and Don Essig, chairman of the PGA Rules Committee, agreed that all of the areas of the course that had been designed and built as bunkers would be played as bunkers.

Whistling Straits is located on the shore of Lake Michigan, on a high bluff above the lake. The soil contains more clay than one might expect, and very little sand. The bunkers that were constructed were actually excavated, had soil removed and were filled with sand.

These areas are not like the naturally occurring sandy areas such as those found on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Rather, they are much better defined, for the most part surrounded by grass, and clearly meet the definition of a bunker as found in the Rules of Golf. That definition reads in part: “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.” Since these bunkers met that definition, it only made sense to treat them as bunkers in the play of a major championship.

A golf course with 120 bunkers would be considered to have a large number. Whistling Straits has 10 times that number. They vary in size and shape, and because they are so numerous, many of them are located outside the gallery rope line.

Because of this unusual situation, it was decided for the 2004 PGA Championship to make every effort to inform the players of the status of these hazards. Although not unprecedented, providing a special notice about bunkers is certainly rare in any competition, since they are defined in the Rules of Golf.

A written notice was included as the first item listed on the Supplementary Rules of Play. A Supplementary Rules sheet is distributed to players at the first tee. However, this information about the bunkers was considered so important that the paragraph from the Supplementary Rules was printed separately on an 8½-by-11 sheet of paper. This paper was posted prominently in player notice board areas, along with pairing and starting time information. The notice was also posted on each mirror in the player locker room and on the notice board in the caddie dining area.

The notice read as follows: “Bunkers: All areas of the course that were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as 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 a part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions.”

The 2004 championship, which was eventually won in a three-man playoff by Vijay Singh, was conducted relatively without incident, until round three on Saturday. Stuart Appleby, who was among the contenders at the time, was penalized a total of four strokes for an incident in a bunker outside the gallery rope line on the 16th hole. Appleby, not realizing he was in a bunker due to the spectator footprints, moved a loose impediment and grounded his club, thereby incurring two separate two-stroke penalties. It was the only incident related to the bunker notice during the 2004 championship.

Move ahead to August 2010. All of the groundwork for a bunker notice and the Supplementary Rules of Play had already been established in 2004. Treating these areas as bunkers had also been affirmed by the USGA in conducting the U.S. Senior Open Championship at Whistling Straits in 2007. Just as in 2004, the bunker notice was the No. 1 item on the Supplementary Rules of Play and the enlarged notice was posted in all of the same locations.

Near the end of the final round, I had come in from the golf course to prepare to conduct a possible playoff. I was in the officials’ locker room in the clubhouse immediately after the final group had hit their tee shots on the 18th hole. Dustin Johnson was playing with Nick Watney. While Watney had fallen out of contention, Johnson needed to par the final hole to win the championship. A bogey by Johnson would set up a three-man playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer.

While still in the locker room, I received a call on my radio from our official in the scoring area, PGA Rules Committee Member Brad Gregory. Brad informed me of what he had just observed from the television broadcast after Johnson first entered the bunker. Other officials in the locker room who were also watching the telecast confirmed to me what had happened. By this time, Johnson had already played his fairway bunker shot, leaving it short and left of the green.

The walking official with the group, David Price, had been near Johnson prior to the stroke from the bunker. David was trying to help move spectators so that Johnson could play, since his tee shot had landed outside the gallery ropes to the right of the hole. Complicating the situation was the fact that the common route for spectators to make their way to No. 18 was also to the right of the 17th fairway.

Before moving away, Price asked Johnson if he “was OK or was there anything else he needed?” Price later explained that if he had any idea that Johnson did not know that he was in a bunker, he would have informed him of this fact. However, Price had given two rulings to Johnson involving bunkers during the play of the inward nine and in each instance, Johnson was fully aware of where his ball was located. Price informed me that he would speak to Johnson as soon as it was reasonable to do so and prior to leaving the green. I replied that I would meet Dustin in the scoring area to review the situation in more detail.

The meeting in the scoring area was certainly the most difficult time that I have ever faced while officiating. I certainly felt tremendous empathy for Johnson, and my primary focus was twofold: to explain in more detail the item in the Supplementary Rules regarding bunkers, and to be sure that Johnson was satisfied that he had, in fact, grounded his club.

I offered Johnson a chance to view the incident at the CBS Television production truck, where he could view a replay in high resolution and as many times as might be necessary to resolve the issue. But he was satisfied that he had breached the Rules by viewing the replays of the bunker shot that were being shown on television while he was in the scoring room.

I have mentioned many times that while obviously devastated, Johnson at all times was the consummate gentleman. I certainly tried to sympathize with him, but I also needed to explain that, in fairness to all competitors, I could not ignore what had happened. I also wanted to take whatever time was necessary for Johnson to at least feel that I had made every effort to answer all of his questions. This process took about 10 minutes.

In the meantime, Watson and Kaymer were anxiously awaiting the start of the playoff, and I was not sure what they knew about the situation that was taking place in Scoring. Since I knew that the media would want to know the details regarding the ruling, I suggested to Price that perhaps he should conduct the playoff, which was won by Kaymer, ending a memorable PGA Championship Sunday.

Mark Wilson was co-chairman of the PGA of America Rules committee from 2005-2010. E-mail him at

Whistling Straits had over 1,200 bunkers during the 2010 PGA Championship. Because they varied in size and shape, were so numerous, and many of them were located outside the gallery rope line, a separate Supplemental Rules sheet was distributed to each competitor on the first tee at the beginning of each round. Above, Dustin Johnson plays his second shot from a bunker to the right of the 18th fairway. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)

David Price, the walking Rules official with the final group of the 2010 PGA Championship, explained the possible infraction with Dustin Johnson (right) and Nick Watney as they walked off the 18th green. After viewing replays of the bunker shot in the scoring area, Johnson was satisfied that he had breached the Rules. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)

During the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Stuart Appleby, who was among the contenders during Saturday's third round, was penalized a total of four strokes for an incident in a bunker outside the gallery rope line on the 16th hole. Appleby, not realizing he was in a bunker due to the spectator footprints, moved a loose impediment and grounded his club, thereby incurring two separate two-stroke penalties. (USGA Museum)