Sheboygan, Wis. They stood high above their masterpiece, taking in a view resembling a watercolor.
Lake Michigan rippled in the distance. The 18th fairway glowed in the fading sunlight. The green, in the bowl of a valley, skulked menacingly in the shade. Every human on the course converged to watch the final playoff hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
After Martin Kaymer tapped in for the bogey that beat Bubba Watson on the third playoff hole on Sunday, course owner Herb Kohler gestured to course designer Pete Dye. “After you, Peter,” Kohler said.
They may remember the PGA more fondly than the rest of America. Dye’s sand-strewn design and the prissy rules of golf ensured that this championship wasn’t won by Kaymer so much as it was adjudicated by men in blazers.
Until the PGA of America turned Sunday into an episode of Judge Judy, it was a stunning day, as Nick Watney shot an 81 to blow a three-shot lead; the wind-whipped Straits finally bared its teeth; and a dozen players flirted with the lead.
Dustin Johnson, playing alongside Watney in the final pairing, had also blown a three-shot lead, in the final round at the U.S. Open, and he shot a one-over-par 37 on the front nine, allowing a diverse handful of players to crowd the top of the leaderboard.
A miracle chip from the rough gave Johnson a birdie on the 16th, and another birdie on the 17th put him in position to win his first major with a par on the 18th.
When his par putt slid by the hole, he was bound for a three-way, three-hole playoff with Kaymer and Watson, until a rules official stopped him.
Johnson’s drive had found a sandy, trampled area far beyond the ropes. As he prepared to hit his second shot, fans stood in the sand and Johnson, assuming he was standing in a waste bunker, grounded his club.
The rules official told him that the sandy area was considered a bunker. “Pretty much, he said that any piece of sand on the whole golf course is a bunker,” Johnson said.
They repaired to the scoring room, where Johnson acknowledged that he had grounded his club. He was assessed a two-stroke penalty that removed him from the playoff and left him tied for fifth.
Players were handed sheets delineating the rules particular to Whistling Straits, and the first rule states that all of the 1,200 bunkers on the course would be played as legitimate bunkers, regardless of their positioning or condition. Even if they contained footprints or tire tracks. Even though a sand area outside of the ropes where people are allowed to walk is usually considered a waste bunker, in which a player is allowed to ground the club.
This is why the intent of a rule is more important than the letter of a rule.
The sandy area where Johnson’s ball came to rest did not look like a bunker. It had been used as a standing or resting place by fans. It was poorly defined. Johnson gained no tangible advantage by grounding his club.
Johnson was sabotaged by an idiosyncratic design and a rule book that does not allow for intelligent interpretation. A tournament that could have been remembered for dynamic young golfers and Sunday drama will now be remembered for stodgy rules officials.
Johnson was asked whether he felt something was stolen from him. “Maybe a little bit,” he said. “But, you know, that’s how it goes.”
Yes, according to the men in blazers, that’s how it goes.