News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Rub of the Green

August 22, 2010

Rub of the Green: Golf can be roller coaster for young pros

TERRE HAUTE — Dustin Johnson may be best remembered for his appearances in the major tournaments in 2010, but not because he won. He didn’t win. But he came awfully close.

In the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Johnson’s length and accuracy were on display the first three rounds, leaving him at 6-under par for 54 holes. But 54 holes does not a tournament make. It was the final 18 on Sunday, when he shot 82, beginning the day with triple-bogey, double-bogey and bogey to set the tone.

The television cameras had to scramble to look elsewhere for their story, because it’s just too hard to watch a guy fall apart like that. After the U.S. Open, stories were written with endings such as, “The round is, mercifully, over for Johnson, but the scars from this debacle will be a long time in healing.”

Fast forward to the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Johnson was again in the spotlight because he was close to the lead, three shots back of the leader Nick Watney after 54 holes. I’m sure a lot of people were happy for Dustin, hoping that his playing well in another major would help him get over the blow-up at the Open. Then indeed, on Sunday, Dustin was playing well. He was exciting to watch, with his long drives and nice touch with the short irons that led to some fun recovery shots.

However, the 71 that we all thought he had shot to get him into a playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer wasn’t to be. He was taken aside by a rules official, and told that there was a little problem with the way he had played his second shot on the 18th hole. He didn’t realize it, but he was hitting from a bunker, and he had grounded his club, so he was assessed a 2-stroke penalty, moving him out of the playoff and into a tie for fifth place.

Johnson said, “I never thought I was in a sand trap. It never once crossed my mind that I was in a bunker.” Granted, Whistling Straits has over 900 sand bunkers, and this one was less defined than most, as it had been trampled and stomped in by spectators throughout the course of the tournament.

However, while I was watching at home, I saw him ground his club and I said to my husband (who wants it to be known that he HAS beaten me twice recently. In golf that is, but I digress …), “Why did he just ground his club?” because I saw the ball in sand, and thought it probably was one of those many bunkers.

I think if I had been playing, I would have asked a rules official for verification, since one was walking with my group, or, I would have played it safe and assumed it was a bunker and not have grounded my club. It turns out, it was, and the tournament directors had put out a 97-word rules sheet explaining that all areas of the course that were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as bunkers [hazards]. 

Johnson hadn’t read the rules sheet. So he was assessed the penalty, missed the playoff, and went away from another major championship in 2010 with a disappointment from what could have been. At least he has made the Ryder Cup team, and hopefully he will play well in that.

This year could also be known as the year the young golfers shot very low rounds, followed by extremely high rounds.

First it was Dustin at the U.S. Open, then 21-year-old Rory McIlroy at the British Open, who opened the tournament with a 63 that tied the all-time scoring record for a major championship, only to be followed by an 80 in very blustery conditions the next day. He had started the day with a two-stroke lead, and ended it 11 strokes back.

McIlroy at least had two more rounds to recover, and ended up in third place for the championship. Watney, a 29-year-old tour “veteran” on the other hand, had led the PGA Championship after 54 holes, shooting a 66 on Saturday by firing at pins and only needing 25 putts, and held a three-stroke lead.

Instead of making the field catch up to him, Watney backed up and let the field just pass him by on his way to shooting a final round 81, putting him in a tie for 18th place.

So don’t let anyone tell you that the pros don’t feel pressure. I think McIlroy and Johnson will win a lot of tournaments in the years to come, and maybe even Watney too, but first they’ve got to pay their dues and learn some hard lessons. And maybe they should hire Louis Oosthuizen’s sports psychologist too!

• • •

Quote of the Day: “The only worse thing that could have happened is if I made that putt on the last hole.” — Dustin Johnson, on learning of his rules infraction and two-stroke penalty that took him out of a playoff for the PGA Championship.

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