GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Dustin Johnson may be having the week off after his heartbreaking end to last weekend’s PGA Championship, but he still cannot escape the spotlight.
The two-shot penalty he received for grounding his club in a bunker on the last hole at Whistling Straits, costing him a place in a playoff with Germany’s Martin Kaymer and fellow American Bubba Watson, remains the hottest topic on the PGA Tour.
His fellow pros have been sending messages of support on various social networking pages and three days after the contentious ruling, the jury is still out on whether Johnson deserved the penalty because of the vagaries of a course that contains around 1200 bunkers, most of which were trampled on by spectators and hard to identify.
“At the end of the day, the onus is on the player and caddie,” South Africa’s Trevor Immelman told reporters Wednesday.
“But, and it’s a huge ‘but’, on how many occasions is a spectator or even hundreds of spectators allowed to stand right next to you in that hazard? To me, that was the problem.”
Immelman was not alone in his confusion even though officials announced before the tournament that to avoid any misunderstandings, every bunker would be treated the same, regardless of its size, location or whether it had been altered by spectators.
Johnson’s mistake was not reading the small print. On the final hole, his wayward drive landed on what looked to be ordinary piece of dirt and so he ground his club before playing his shot.
But the dirt was actually sand that was part of a flat bunker, which he could not see because of the throngs of people standing around him. The rules were clear but that one small error cost him a two-stroke penalty that dropped him from a tie to first to joint fifth.
Immelman, the 2008 U.S. Masters champion, had not read the rules closely either and only did so after his mother told him to. She had walked the course during a practice round and remarked to her son about the unusually high number of bunkers that she and other spectators wandered straight through.
“From that point I became aware,” Immelman said.
“Then I saw the rule that anything outside the ropes wasn’t going to be tended to or raked, which is not normal in itself. It was a pretty bizarre situation.”
Anthony Kim, who was overtaken by Johnson for an automatic place on the U.S. Ryder Cup team and must rely on an invitation from captain Corey Pavin, was less sympathetic, saying all the players were told about the bunker rule.
“On the first tee every morning they told us,” Kim said. “Everything is a bunker out there; there’s no waste area’,”
While Johnson has a week off to contemplate what went wrong, Immelman and Kim are among a host of top players back in action at the Wyndham Championship this week desperately trying to qualify for the FedEx Cup series.
The four-tournament playoff, starting the following week, will be restricted to the top 125 players from a season-long points list that concludes after this week’s event, being played for the third year back at Sedgefield, a course that has to be constantly watered to stay green in the steamy heat.
The effect is that the tournament becomes like a giant game of darts with players aggressively firing their approach shots at the pin, secure in the knowledge the ball will stop quickly on the plasticine-like greens.
“Maybe around April time these greens could be really firm and fast and pack quite a bit of punch,” Immelman explained.
”But right now with all the heat, you need to keep them nice and moist, otherwise that bent grass is going to die pretty quick.
“The weather is sort of probably forcing the superintendent’s hand a little bit from that aspect but I think it’s a fantastic course and I‘m excited to be here this week.”
Last year’s Wyndham tournament was decided in a three-way playoff, with Ryan Moore emerging as the winner. He is back to defend his title this year against a field that also contains Fred Couples, John Daly and Canadian Mike Weir.
Weir is ranked 126th on the FedEx points list so has to make the cut this week to get into the playoffs.
Editing by Julian Linden