An oral history of DJ’s PGA Championship bunker debacle, where a major title slipped away

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When Dustin Johnson drove it into what he thought was a waste area on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship, a tragedy ensued—and so did a comedy of errors. Years later the key players are still trying to make sense of what happened that day at Whistling Straits. [This story appeared in the August 2015 edition of GOLF Magazine.]

Five years ago, before Rory and Jordan hung some years on him—and before a heartbreaking finish at Chambers Bay aged him even more—Dustin Johnson, 25, was the best young American player on Tour. In June of 2010, he held the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, until a final-round 82 sent him spiraling into a tie for eighth. And here Johnson was, two months later at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, again on the brink of his first major win.

It was an impressive charge. After birdies on 13, 16 and 17, Johnson led by a stroke. All he needed to do was par the 18th hole—and to know the difference between a bunker and a waste area. By unintentionally grounding his club on the 72nd hole, he drew a two-stroke penalty and missed out on the playoff with Bubba Watson and eventual winner Martin Kaymer.

The rule Johnson broke—and that cost him his first major victory—was even younger than he was. Six years earlier, before the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, PGA officials decided to classify the roughly 1,000 sandy areas on the course as bunkers, even though some resembled patches of dirt no bigger than the seat of a chair. The local rule was clearly posted in the locker room and elsewhere. But by 2010, as Johnson stood on the 18th tee, it had been largely forgotten. What followed led to the most bizarre rules gaffe in decades. Here’s how Bunkergate played out, according to those who witnessed it.

David Price, the PGA of America rules official who walked with the final pairing of Johnson and 54-hole leader Nick Watney: “Whistling Straits is a wonderful golf course, and it’s unique in respect to its bunkers. Just walking from the putting green to the first tee, you pass nine of them. They’re in the oddest of places. I’m sure Pete Dye had a reason for each and every one. [For the PGA Championship], we try to maintain everything that’s inside the ropes, but with the size of the crew we have it becomes a physical impossibility to maintain all those bunkers.”

Needing only a par on the 18th to win the tournament, Johnson loses his drive right, into the gallery, and into what has been described as a “manger” (David Feherty), a “waste area” (in the opinion of many) and a “bunker” (PGA rules officials).

Dustin Johnson: “Obviously, I got a penalty for being in what they call a bunker. The problem is, they play all sand on the course as a bunker. But it didn’t look like a sand trap to me. It didn’t even look like sand. It looked like dirt. It’s where the crowd was standing, and generally the crowd doesn’t stand in a bunker. I mean, 18 is a tough hole—it’s a tough drive. And I blocked it. If I had it to do it over I would have hit 3-wood off the tee, because the wind was howling off the left.”

Price: “The whole ordeal took quite a bit of time because of how far right Dustin had hit his tee shot. With the topography at Whistling Straits, it was difficult to get the crowd to move. There was a steep hill to the right, and to ask them to move back would force people to move down the backside of the hill, where they wouldn’t be able to see. So we had to move the crowd into the fairway.”

Mark D. Wilson, who chaired the Rules Committee: “I was in the officials’ locker room getting ready for the possibility of a playoff. There was a TV on, and there were a number of officials watching, a half dozen or so officials in the room.”

Nick Watney: “I was a long ways away from what was going on. I was in the fairway, and all I could see was a big crowd of people over by Dustin.”

Price: “There were spectators standing in the bunker because, for all intents and purposes, it was out of play. The bunker was big—I think 18 yards in depth, and six yards in width. I got everybody out and onto the top lip of it. Then I went to Dustin and said, “Are you okay?” He said, “Yeah, I’m okay.” I said, “Is there anything you need?” He said, “Yeah, I need you to move more of those people down that right-hand side.” So I went down there to do that.”

Chad Reynolds, Watney’s caddie: “Nick and I were wondering why [Price] was with us and not with Dustin. That was the whole thing. I think there are even pictures of the three of us in the fairway while all that commotion was going on. We were wondering, Why isn’t the official making sure everything is proper? The official should have been there. It’s as simple as that.”

Price: “I was down there moving people, at Dustin’s request. But I’d been at the bunker and asked Dustin if he was okay, and he said he was.”

Johnson gets set over the ball but backs away. Distracted and holding his club in one hand, he touches the sand for the first time. Addressing the ball again, the club contacts the sand a second time. He has twice grounded his club in the bunker, a clear rules violation to those watching on TV in the officials’ locker room.

Wilson: “Brad Gregory, who was the official in scoring, called me on my radio [and alerted me to the situation]. I walked around the corner where the others were standing in the officials’ locker room, and said, “Did you all see that?” And they all said yes.”

David Winkle, Johnson’s agent: “I was back behind 18 green and got a text from Steve Flesch, a client. He said, “Wink, there might be a problem.” I said, “Steve, ha-ha, not a good time to mess with me,” or something. He said, “I’m serious. I think there might have been a rules infraction.””

Price: “I did not see it—at Dustin’s request, I was probably 30 yards down the fairway, moving the gallery, when he hit the ball. But I was notified via radio by one of our officials that Dustin may have touched the sand with his club while he was standing in it. That’s when Mark Wilson went down to the CBS production trailer so he could take a look at it in slow motion to be sure. That took a bit of time. I didn’t find out for sure that Dustin had grounded his club until about the time he was over his putt for par. Mark came back over the radio and said that he had confirmed that Dustin had touched the sand not once but twice.”

Wilson: “I asked David [Price] how he wanted to handle it. He said he’d speak to the player, which he did. That’s the scene you see at the end [on TV], where David puts his arm around Dustin.”

Price: “My heart sank for him, because he had played so well, especially on the back nine. I knew that Mark was right in his assessment: I had to go out and let Dustin know immediately. I had the visit with him and Nick at the green, and I told them that if they needed to, we could watch it in the CBS trailer.”

Price escorts Johnson, Watney and their caddies to the scorer’s room. Meanwhile, Feherty and his CBS broadcasting colleagues, along with thousands of fans on-site and millions watching around the world, try to figure out what has just happened.

Price: “There was a TV monitor right where we walked in the door, and CBS had highlighted everything but the ball. Dustin looked at it, I looked at it, and we just walked into the scoring room without saying anything. There was a sense that we weren’t watching something good. Dustin’s manager David Winkle was in the there, and he had his hands on his knees, bent over looking at the floor. I could tell he was just sick.”

Winkle: “I like David [Price] a lot. He’s a good man. I have a lot of respect for him. Obviously that wasn’t a comfortable situation for him to be in.”

Although Johnson twice touched the sand, the violations are considered to be part of a single incident and thus warrant only one two-stroke penalty. Still, the damage has been done. The would-be winner cards a triple-bogey 7 and signs for a final-round 73, tying for fifth.

Wilson decides not to walk with the Kaymer-Watson playoff after all, sending Price instead so that Wilson can explain the ruling to the media. A dazed Johnson, too, will soon be asked to explain his side of the story.

Winkle: “The first words I had with Dustin as he came out of scoring, he said, “I’ve been playing competitive golf for as long as I can remember, and never did it occur to me that I was in a bunker.” And of course the media wanted to know his feelings about it, and for a moment I think he considered not commenting. But I think he realized the best thing to do was cool off and compose himself and have a nice visit with the media, which he did. As we were walking to his car, I said, “I’m as proud of you for the way you handled the events of the last hour as I would’ve been if you’d won the tournament.””

Five years later, Price calls the episode regrettable. Winkle—whose client Justin Leonard would have won the first PGA at Whistling Straits, in 2004, had he not made bogey from the middle of the 18th fairway on Sunday—feels as if the course owes him one after so much heartache.

Price: “It’s not pleasant for any of us to have to talk about. I’ve been on the PGA of America Rules of Golf Committee since 1987; I’ve walked with the last group six or seven times. I’ve worked as a walking official in the PGA Championship 10 to 15 times; I’ve worked eight Ryder Cups, five U.S. Opens, five British Opens. It wasn’t new to me whatsoever. It was just an unfortunate thing. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last time I will have to assess a penalty. It just happened to be a critical time in a major event.”

Johnson: “Nobody was over there with me [in the bunker on 18], but it’s not [Price’s] fault. It is what it is. I’m not too worried about it. I like the golf course. I played well there, so. . .”

Winkle: “I’ve replayed it in my mind a thousand times. One thing that might’ve helped is if someone had pushed the people outside of the bunker so that when Dustin stepped into it he would’ve seen the perimeter of it and realized, “Whoa, I need to be careful. I’m in a bunker.” I’m not assigning blame, but when have you ever seen gallery members in the bunker with you? Whistling Straits is a great course, but it creates a recipe for something bad to happen, and sure enough it did, at the worst time.”

Postscript: Johnson—on the heels of his crushing near miss at Chambers Bay—will be back at Whistling Straits this month. Price and Wilson will be there, too, working as rules officials. A local rule will again explain that all those dirt patches will be treated as bunkers—even the ones well outside the gallery ropes that are covered in trash and tire tracks.

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