Sunday, 22 August 2010

'Bunker-gate' - Golf is the Winner

18th hole, Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wisconsin Aug 8th 2010
Despite the poor quality photo it does resemble a bunker to me!

I sense that there have been several positive outcomes for golf in the wake of ‘Bunker-gate’ at Whistling Straits last week.

The first and most important, is that Dustin Johnson has emerged from the babble of comment, some of it insightful but much of it uninformed, with a heightened respect from everyone that has followed this absorbing sporting controversy. In post-tournament interviews the 26-year-old from South Carolina has accepted that he did make a mistake and has not tried to apportion blame to anyone else. Contrast this with the attitude of professionals in virtually every other sport (especially soccer) where to blame others and avoid any personal responsibility or accountability appears to be the norm. His acceptance that he did unintentionally break a Rule of Golf is a breath of fresh air and means that he joins a long list of his fellow tour professionals in demonstrating why golf is different from all other sports; an admirable role model for the 60 million amateur golfers around the world.

In my opinion, the universal Rules of Golf, and the way in which they were consistently applied without fear or favour by PGA officials, have emerged unscathed. Johnson’s ball was definitely in a bunker, as carefully defined in the detailed Local Rules sheet given to each player prior to the start of the competition, and he incontrovertibly grounded his club twice in that bunker. I applaud the event Rules officials for making the quick, correct decision to bring Johnson’s attention to the penalty he had incurred before he returned his score card, despite the inevitable consequences that they must have realised would follow. It would have been easier to have let it lie, especially when he failed to make the putt that everyone thought would have won him the Championship. Of course, it was 13-4b that was the Rule at issue; if your ball is in a bunker you may not touch the ground in that bunker with your hand or a club. This is the case even if you don’t recognise the area as a hazard. In stroke play the penalty is two strokes. This is obviously the case whether you are playing casual golf, the monthly medal or, as in this case, the closing hole of a major. It is black and white; there can be no exceptions.

A very positive consequence of this episode is that golfers of all abilities (and hopefully even TV commentators) should now be more aware, and therefore more attentive, to familiarising themselves with the Local Rules pertaining. As my previous blog entry emphasised, it is essential for all players to scrutinise the Local Rules in operation before starting a competitive round of golf.

It irritates me when I hear anyone use the term ‘waste bunker’, as I have so many times over the past two weeks. There is no such thing as a ‘waste bunker’ in the Rules of Golf. Any sandy areas that are not bunkers are ‘through the green’. I am hoping that the events at at Whistling Straits will have educated players and golf spectators to realise that this is the case. The players were well aware that there were over 1,200 bunkers in play (an average of 67 per hole!) as every golf writer had mentioned it for weeks beforehand. In fact, a detail that has conveniently been overlooked by many of those that have been criticising the ruling behind this issue, is that there are no sandy waste areas in Whistling Straits, therefore a ball lying in a sandy area has to be in a bunker. This was confirmed by Shona McRae, Manager - Rules of Golf for the R&A on her official Rules blog.

Another likely outcome of bunker-gate is that there will be a better understanding of the role of the Rules Officials that walk with the tour players. They are not referees and nor are they present to try and catch-out the players, imposing on-the-spot penalties. On the contrary, they are encouraged to prevent players from breaching Rules. For example, by intervening if they suspect that they may be about to incur a penalty, or to outline the relief options that are available. Unfortunately, the walking official with Dustin Johnson was preoccupied with crowd control problems and did not get close enough to him to warn him that his ball was in a bunker. Of course, both the player and his caddie knew that he was present and could have/should have asked for a clarification.

My advice to those that still believe that the decision to impose the two stroke penalty on Dustin Johnson was wrong, is to imagine the outrage that would have followed if he had not been appropriately penalised and had gone on to win PGA Championship playoff. I think that it is safe to assume that he would not have wanted his penalty offence to have been ignored. Greg Norman, the Great White Shark, summed it up very succinctly;
“The PGA [of America] made the right decision. The Rules of Golf are the Rules of Golf. The bottom line is it’s the responsibility of the player and it’s the responsibility of the caddie, too.”
Good golfing,

Barry Rhodes

Stop Press: Juli Inkster was disqualified from the LPGA’s Safeway Classic on Saturday for violating Rule 14-3. Decision 14-3/10, Use of a Training or Swing Aid During Round, states that a player may not make a stroke or practice swing using a club with a weighted headcover or “donut” on it, or use any other device designed as a training or swing aid. Inkster admitted using a weighted device during her 30-minute wait on the 10th tee, providing another reminder that Rule 6-1 states that a player and their caddie are responsible for knowing the Rules.

Barry Rhodes is;
Author of the book: '999 Questions on the Rules of Golf'
Author and narrator of the CD: '99 Golden Nuggets to Demystifying the Rules of Golf'
Content provider for the iPhone application: ‘Golf Rules Quiz’


courtgolf said...

Great stuff, Barry. Thanks. It's always good to read a positive affirmation of the rules of the game.

My first thought when I saw Inkster using that weight (it's called an IGotcha Ready - a very versatile training and stretching aid), was how did her caddy let her keep that in the bag ? It weighs a couple of pounds, and that can wear you out over the 18 hole march.

Question - did you see Cristie Kerr hit her approach into the lake at 18 on Sunday ? This was a yellow stake hazard, so she had to drop on the other side of the lake keeping the point where the ball last crossed the hazard line between herself and the hole.

However, the officials let her drop along the same line she had been on for the previous shot (which was to the right of the hole).

The only way to keep the last point crossed in line with the hole was to go around the lake to the right side (in the area of the scoreboard) or use the drop area.

I know that the drop is legal because the official declared it so - but was it correct ?

Barry Rhodes said...


I did not see this Cristie Kerr incident, which I believe cost her the LPGA Safeway Classic title. My only thought is that there may have been a dropping zone to the side. There is a photo of her making the drop that shows the Rules Official standing right next to her, so I strongly doubt that any mistake was made.


courtgolf said...

She was a shot back when she hit her ball in the water, so all it really did was close the door on her chances. There was a drop zone, but she didn't use it. The picture you're looking at is Kerr and the rules official lining up with the spot where the ball crossed the line, but it is at least 15 feet right of the hole position.

courtgolf said...

Serious question on the Inkster violation. Do you know the history of that particular rule ? Did it come from the time when guys carried clubs for every conceivable shot and might attach something to hit a different shot and was just never changed ? In these days of production clubs, we don't have attachments (except for the Titleist interchangable wedge faces, and the driver weighting systems.

Barry Rhodes said...


No, I don't know the history of this Rule, except that the relevant Decision 14-3/10 has been in the Decisions on the Rules of Golf for at least 10 years.

Part of Rule 14-3 states; "during a stipulated round the player must not use any artificial device or unusual equipment.... that might assist him in making a stroke or in his play."