Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sad end to a great major

I should feel pretty good about the fact that one of my 12 pre-tournament picks - young German Martin Kaymer - won the PGA Championship, the year's final major.

I should feel pretty good that, coupled with Phil Mickelson's victory in the year's first major, the Masters, I had correctly predicted two of the four major champions this year.

I should feel pretty good that my 12 picks for the PGA included three of the top seven, four of the top 12 and six of the top 23 finishers.

All I really feel is sad.

Sad for Kaymer, a 25-year-old who won his first major championship and became only the second German to win a major, behind his icon, two-time Masters champ Bernhard Langer. Sad because Kaymer's incredible play down the stretch (just two bogeys in the final 55 holes, more than offset by 13 birdies), will forever be overshadowed by the way the tournament ended.

Sad for American Bubba Watson, whose daring play on the final day produced three birdies in a four-hole stretch of the back nine, an all-or-nothing approach in the subsequent three-hole playoff with Kaymer that ultimately cost him big-time, and an 11-under 277 total in regulation that, were it not for Kaymer calmly holing a 15-foot par-saving putt at 18, would have produced big-hitting Bubba's first major championship.

Sad, also for American Zach Johnson and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, both of whom finished tied for third at 10 under, a stroke out of the playoff. Johnson, who won the Masters in 2007, is a short-hitting pro who somehow managed to string together rounds of 69-70-69-70 on the ridiculously long layout. McIlroy, who turned 21 in May, showed a youthful bravado with 21 birdies during the four days but couldn't come up with the one shot or putt he needed most.

But sad, mostly, for American Dustin Johnson. In a scenario a bit reminiscent of Australian Greg Norman's in 1986, when the Great White Shark led after three rounds of all four majors but won just the British Open that year, Johnson played in the final group of two majors in 2010, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and last week's PGA at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.

At Pebble Beach, Johnson led by three shots after three rounds, but he blew up with a disastrous final-round 82. At the PGA, he wasn't the leader after 54 holes; Nick Watney had that distinction. Dustin Johnson, though, stood at the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits, alone at 12 under and needing only a par to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy.

In a sequence of events that can only be described as a perfect storm, disaster struck Dustin. His tee shot on the par-4 was well right, the ball coming to rest in a sandy waste area where hundreds of spectators had been standing. Johnson surveyed the scene, then hit a shot left and beyond the green that was not spectacular but, considering what he had to work with, not bad, either. His pitch from high grass left him with less than 10 feet to save par, but he missed the putt to the right, falling back into a tie with Watson and Kaymer.

For the briefest of moments, it seemed the fans at Whistling Straits and those of us at home watching on TV would be treated to a fascinating, three-man, three-hole playoff between an unflappable German and two long-hitting Americans. It looked for all the world like a tantalizing glimpse ahead to October's Ryder Cup. Watson, 31, and Johnson, 26, will be representing Team USA; Kaymer will line up for Team Europe. These three are among a new crop of pros that are the fearless future of men's golf. Watson, for that matter, may one day replace Mickelson as the best Lefty on tour.

But even before Watney and Dustin Johnson left the 18th green Sunday at Whistling Straits, a rules official for the PGA approached the pair, telling Johnson there may be a problem with him grounding his club in a bunker and thus incurring a two-shot penalty.

Johnson's reaction? "What bunker?" he says he told the rules official.

It seems that the waste area well right of the 18th fairway was, in fact, a bunker, one of the more than 1,000 sand traps at Whistling Straits, set along the western shore of Lake Michigan. Johnson was in shock. He says it never occurred to him that the waste area where he struck his second shot was a sand trap. People were standing there when his ball landed; many were still standing in the "bunker" when he hit his second shot.

You can bet the folks who run the Masters would never allow such behavior by fans at Augusta National; one would assume the stuffed-shirts at the United States Golf Association wouldn't put up with that at the U.S. Open; and heaven help any lad cheeky enough to try that at the British Open. Royal and Ancient Golf Club officials would boot them faster than you can say Macbeth.
Yet the penalty for Dustin Johnson stood, and the ashen-faced pro flipped his pencil around, erasing his final-hole 5 and replacing it with a 7 that dropped him into a tie for fifth at 9 under. And just like that, what was shaping up to be one of the most exciting majors in history took on the bitter taste of bad meat.

The three-hole playoff was anticlimactic, although Watson and Kaymer did their best to reinvigorate the proceedings. Watson birdied the first hole, the short par-4 10th, and Kaymer drew even with birdie at the second playoff hole, the par-3 17th. Back at the sadistically tough 18th, Watson hit into the water with his second shot and wound up with double-bogey, allowing Kaymer to win with a simple two-putt bogey.

Dustin Johnson was gone long before the playoff. He took questions from the press before exiting and handled himself with remarkable calm. I'm guessing he was still in shock, but, admirably, he didn't try to shift blame.

There was plenty of blame to go around, starting with Johnson himself, and his caddie. The responsibility falls to them to determine where they are at all times on the golf course. And if there was a question about whether or not Johnson's ball was in a bunker, they only had to ask for a ruling. The bigger blame, in my opinion, goes to the PGA of America, which took the coward's route by hiding behind a rules sheet posted in the locker room before the tournament alerting the players that all of the more than 1,000 bunkers would be treated as such, meaning no grounding of your golf club before hitting the ball.

That rule only works if the people running the tournament also treat all of the bunkers as such. Here's a simple, common-sense rule: if you want to call them bunkers, you don't let fans stand in them, walk through them, roll their strollers through them, essentially obliterating them to the point where they no longer resemble bunkers.

It was alternately amusing and irritating to hear the TV talking heads' reaction to Johnson's predicament. The make-no-waves CBS team mostly swallowed PGA officials' explanation without question, although David Feherty, to his credit, later stood among a throng of spectators in the area where Johnson struck his second shot, dumbfounded as to how the area could be described as a bunker. Over on the Golf Channel, a couple of former touring pros, Frank Nobilo and Brandel Chamblee, came down on opposite sides of the discussion. Nobilo, like Feherty, was perplexed by the explanation that the waste area still qualified as a bunker after fans were allowed to stand in it; Chamblee played the PGA apologist, saying blame began and ended with Dustin Johnson.

Johnson paid a high price for his mistake, but the PGA suffered, too.

Mopping up my 12 pre-tournament picks: In addition to picking Kaymer, McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, I also had Mickelson, who tied for 12th at 6 under; Steve Stricker and Ernie Els, tied for 18th at 4 under; Retief Goosen, tied for 55th at 2 over; and Rickie Fowler, tied for 58th at 3 over. My four others, Padraig Harrington, Lucas Glover, Ryo Ishikawa and Sean O'Hair, all missed the cut.

No comments:

Post a Comment