Who: Dustin Johnson
What: A two-stroke penalty for grounding the club in a bunker on a 233-yard four iron
When: Final round of the PGA Championship
Where: 500-yard par 4 18th hole at Whistling Straits
In my estimation, that was a clear-cut rules decision. It’s a shame that Johnson was penalized, but there was not even any question as to whether he had broken the rule (Number 13-4 in “The Rules of Golf”). It took so long to finalize the decision only because the rules officials had to go through the procedure of confirming the rule, reviewing video and then discussing the situation with Johnson. Once I saw what happened on the replay, it was clear that Johnson had grounded his club. Indeed, grounding the club is part of Johnson’s preshot routine.
Who was at fault? I don’t blame Johnson. Yes, the player is always responsible for his actions, but under severe stress we all usually lose our ability to reason and think clearly, which is what Johnson did by basically just swinging away without thinking. So I fault Johnson’s caddie. It would be an automatic reaction for a good Tour caddie to stop his player and call over a rules official. A good caddie should always keep his player alert to the rules.
Still, I do blame Johnson for the shot that he played. The hole slopes right to left, and he was on a se sidehill lie with the ball above his feet. So he had to know that the ball would naturally curve from right to left. But Johnson was so aggressive, pumped up and spaced out that he aimed directly at the flagstick. That was a rookie mistake. Instead, he should have aimed well to the right of the flagstick. Had he done that, his ball might not have flown into the thick rough short of the green.
What do we learn from this unfortunate event? Johnson has monumental raw talent, but he needs to learn to think more clearly and calmly under pressure and he needs a caddie who will help him think by speaking up when necessary.
THE DRILL: With a hanging lie – the ball is above or below your feet – you should never ground the club at address. Never! Instead, hover the club just above the turf and just behind the ball. Doing that accomplishes two things.
1. It relaxes your hands and arms. When hovering the club, the tendency is to keep the club and your body in motion and doing that helps prevent you from freezing over the ball and getting nervous.
2. It will help to avoid the chance of being penalized, either if your ball is in a bunker or if it’s on a sidehill lie or in another unusual spot where the ball might be liable to move if you ground the club.
Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher T.J. Tomasi teaches at PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance in Port St. Lucie, Fla.