The Waste Land and Dustin Johnson

Fire in the Lake: the image of Revolution

Thus the superior man

Set the calendar in order

And makes the seasons clear.

I Ching.

I was raking out the bunker when my player told me to stop. Everyone else did too, as he looked around for a rules official who, fortunately, was quickly available. It was my first real introduction to the Rules of Golf—which are, unlike most other sports, usually capitalized. My first introduction, that is, in their hard-core, strict sense, which is the sense they have been appeared all throughout this last summer. If there is a Player of the Year in this season without Tiger, that is, the Rules of Golf must be the winner by a dominant, Tiger Woods-in-2000 margin.

The year began with the squabbles over grooves after the USGA and the Royal and Ancient decided to limit the kinds of grooves irons could have, with the idea that players could no longer simply ignore the rough beyond the fairways and fecklessly drive it without regard for where the ball ended up. This was heralded as a “backdoor” rollback of the distances the new golf balls were capable of traveling.

It became big news when one player, Scott McCarron, accused a bigger-name player, Phil Mickelson, of being a cheater because Mickelson threatened to use clubs immune to the grooves rollback (for reasons that are themselves a story), the ancient Ping Eye 2 model. But Phil won the Masters tournament later that spring and nearly everyone forgot about the whole incident.

The groove story continued later this summer when a player named Sarah Brown on the Futures Tour, a feeder to the LPGA, got disqualified from an event—during the final round, when she was a few shots off the lead. It turned out that the wedge she was using actually did conform to the rule, but by then she was off the course, with no chance to complete her round. An overzealous rules official got the blame, and Ms. Brown received some sort of settlement as recompense; the figure involved was cloaked in secrecy, but since almost any trial lawyer could have won the suit according to the national magazines it likely was something substantial.

How Sarah Brown got her grooves back only begins to scratch the surface of how rules have affected the year in golf: there was Jim Furyk’s disqualification for missing a pro-am at the Barclays, for instance. That incident involved a rule of the PGA Tour and not a rule of the game itself of course, but it didn’t do much to help dispel the image of the game as kind of stuffy, especially when the result was to banish the third-ranked player from the Tour’s “play-offs,” the Fed-Ex Cup.

That brings us around Dustin Johnson’s “duel with the sand” at Whistling Straits at the PGA. Gary D’Amato, golf beat writer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, quoted Straits architect Pete Dye as saying “Ray Charles could have seen it was a bunker,” throwing the blame entirely on Johnson. But dealing with bunkers has been a problem for the rules-makers of golf for a long time.

I was working a stop in the Chicago suburbs for what’s known as the Hooters Tour, one of the better of golf’s minor leagues. My player was an experienced guy who’d been on the PGA Tour for a season during the 1990s, and otherwise had knocked around the shadier neighborhoods of the golf world. He’d been the money-leader on the Hooters Tour the year before—proof of the maxim, “old age and treachery beats youth and skill.”

My player was experienced enough, in fact, to warn me about bunkers before we played our practice round, saying that he’d had some incident at a previous tour stop with a local caddie and stressing that he didn’t want it to happen again. Certainly I took what he said seriously, scoffed at the idea it could happen again, and intimated that something must have been defective with his looper. And then it happened.

My guy had hit into the same bunker as another of our playing partners, though the two balls were widely separated. This second player played first. Before my player could hit, and because I was trying to save some time, I started to rake out the second player’s mess in the sand, thinking I could do that while my player was preparing for his shot. That’s when everything stopped and we summoned the rules official. It turned out that what I did could be construed as “testing the sand,” and it got my player a two-shot penalty.

That didn’t go over well; as it occurred, the ruling probably cost my player a win (he finished third instead). But despite being so important that it quite literally determined the winner of that tournament, the rule was changed the very next year—what I did would no longer be considered a penalty. To my mind, anyway, that makes things more, not less, difficult: how could what I did be so disastrous as to affect materially the outcome of the contest, yet not so weighty as to be impossible to change?

That’s the Dustin Johnson problem in a nutshell: I don’t think that anyone would seriously argue that Johnson’s mistake in the sand made him a lesser golfer than Martin Kaymer, the eventual winner (though I suppose some might, on the theory that knowledge of the rules should be part of the skill set of the eventual champion). Yet it did end up being the difference between making that play-off and missing it. In other words, what’s driving the train here? The sport or the rules? And are the two distinguishable?

One way of framing this question is to ask whether Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer would have been refused entry to the playoff had they done what Johnson did. Palmer was famously the recipient of a problematic ruling at the 1958 Masters, which he won over Ken Venturi after disagreeing with a rules official. Tiger was a beneficiary of the rules at Phoenix in 1999, when his large gallery obliged him by moving a huge boulder in his line. Both Palmer and Woods were within the rules—Palmer less obviously so—but one wonders what might have happened had Dustin Johnson already been a major winner.

What I think the question demonstrates is just how fragile the game can be—in the absence of a dominant figure, the point of the game becomes lost. The rules are meant to be a guide to the game, in other words, not the game itself, as odd as that idea might be given that the rules also define what the game is. But while the rules tell us what the game is, we also know what the game is by how a truly great player plays it—that is, if a truly great player plays the game one way, the rules themselves must be wrong. My sense about this year in golf is that without a dominant player to tell us what the game is aside from the rules, then the rules become our only source for that definition—and hence, all the difficulty this year about rules.

This is a sentiment that can be dangerous when applied outside of golf, of course. It runs straight from the legal theory of the divine right of kings—or Nixon’s idea that something is legal if the President does it. Charles I’s lawyers argued precisely this point in the “Ship Money Case”—and ended up getting beheaded for it, as the English people decided (emphatically) that maybe this wasn’t such a good theory to run a government on. But while it may be a bad theory for government, maybe it isn’t such a bad way to run golf: le roi est mort, vive le roi.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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