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By Brian Pelanda

The United States Golf Association (USGA) and the R&A, golf's international governing bodies, recently announced significant changes to the Rules of Golf beginning in 2012. A few of these revisions address certain provisions at the heart of several unfortunate incidents at professional golf tournaments in recent years. The question now is whether the PGA will follow suit and revise the unpalatable Local Rule on bunkers at Whistling Straits that fostered the unidentifiable-bunker-scenario that cost Dustin Johnson the opportunity to contend in a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship (for more information, see "What's A Bunker?: The Curious Case of How Dustin Johnson Lost the 92nd PGA Championship and Why the PGA Must Revise the Now Infamous Local Rule at Whistling Straits" that will be published in the Fall/Winter EASL Journal).


Under the new Rules, a golfer will thankfully no longer be penalized if the wind or other natural circumstance causes his or her ball to move after he or she has addressed it. Rule 18-2b currently penalizes a player one stroke if his or her ball moves after addressing it, regardless of cause. In recent years, several professionals have suffered under this harsh and unreasonable rule in major championships: Fredrik Jacobson at the 2008 British Open, Padraig Harrington at the 2009 Masters, and Rory McIlroy at the 2011 British Open. Webb Simpson also took a Rule 18-2b penalty on the chin at the 2011 Zurich Classic. As Simpson held the outright lead during the final round and lined up for his par putt on the 15th hole, gusting winds caused his ball to move; the resulting penalty forced him into a playoff with Bubba Watson that he ultimately lost.

The revised Rule 18-2b now contains an exception that exonerates a player from penalty if his ball moves after it has been addressed when "it is known or virtually certain that he did not cause the ball to move." Although this much needed change in the Rules has come too late for some, it is better late than never.

Another one of the upcoming changes in the Rules remedies the rare and ridiculous circumstance under the text of Rule 13-4, in which a player could be penalized for raking a bunker that he or she walked through in the course of making one stroke, prior to making the next stroke if his or her ball on that next stroke currently lies in another bunker. This rule victimized Stewart Cink at the 2008 Zurich Classic. Cink's drive on the 15th hole during the third round landed near, but not in, a fairway bunker, and as he surveyed the scene for his second shot he walked through that bunker. He took his second shot, and his ball landed in a greenside bunker. Before moving on to take his third shot from the greenside bunker, adhering to common golf etiquette, his caddie raked the fairway bunker through which Cink had walked in preparation for his second shot. This violated Rule 13-4a's prohibition on "test[ing] the condition of the hazard or any similar hazard" when the player's ball currently lies in a hazard.

As Cink didn't realize that what he had done violated the Rules until the following day, he was unable to add the two-stroke penalty to his score and he was thus disqualified from the tournament under Rule 6-6b for signing and returning an incorrect score card.

The newly revised version of Rule 13-4 now "permit[s] a player to smooth sand or soil in a hazard at any time, including before playing from that hazard, provided it is for the sole purpose of caring for the course and Rule 13-2 [a player must not improve the position or lie of his or her ball] is not breached."

The USGA and R&A also revised several other provisions in the Rules for 2012. Both of the new revisions to the Rules discussed above attempt to remedy unreasonable results that have occurred under the current Rules in recent years at professional golf tournaments. The governing bodies essentially acknowledged that there were problems, considered solutions, and revised the Rules accordingly. The PGA should do the same in response to the controversy that came to fore over the Local Rule on bunkers at Whistling Straits during the 2010 PGA Championship.


During the final round of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Dustin Johnson incurred a fatal 2-stroke penalty on his final hole pursuant to an ambiguously worded Local Rule on the play of bunkers that knocked him out of a tie for the lead and an opportunity to compete in a three-way playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer. Johnson incurred the penalty under Rule 13-4 for grounding his club while his ball allegedly lay in a bunker on his second shot--even though it never occurred to him that his ball was ever in a bunker. The unique condition of the Whistling Straits course contributed to his confusion. Although the location of Johnson's second shot didn't appear to be a bunker at all, the officials determined that the Local Rule established that the area in question was in fact a bunker.

The controversial Local Rule stated that: "All areas of the course that were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as bunkers (hazards), whether or not they have been raked." Course officials had allowed thousands of tournament patrons to traipse through and stand in the questionable area all week, without maintaining the appearance of the area as a bunker. While the Rules of Golf require a bunker to be (1) a prepared area of ground, (2) from which turf or soil has been removed, and (3) replaced with sand or the like, the Local Rule impermissibly redefined a bunker as being any area that was merely "designed and built" as a sand bunker, regardless of its present condition.

Under the language of the Local Rule, it's easy to imagine an unidentifiable bunker-scenario where the course architect supposedly had "designed and built" an area on the course to be a bunker, but the turf or soil from that area has since returned, or the sand has vanished--things that are more than likely to happen with thousands of spectators trampling through it over a six-day period and when the bunker itself isn't maintained by the grounds crew.

The Local Rule essentially requires players to have an intimate knowledge of the architectural plans for Whistling Straits, a course that was built more than a decade ago and boasts that it has more than 1,000 bunkers, most of which are unmaintained.

Even if we were to presume for the moment that holding players responsible for being familiar with the course's architectural plans would be fair, we can't reasonably apply such a presumption in Dustin Johnson's case, because tournament officials actually admitted after the incident that the reason they didn't provide players with a map of all the existing bunkers on the course was precisely because no such map even exists, primarily due to the fact that not all of them can be readily identified. Among other things, this point raises the troubling question as to how the tournament officials were thus ever able to conclusively determine whether Dustin Johnson actually was in an area that was "designed and built" as a bunker when he took his second shot on the 18th hole, but we've just been left to take their word for it.

Despite the controversy that ensued and the apparent impermissible contradiction between the Local Rule and the definition of a bunker under Rules of Golf, the PGA has nevertheless stated that it plans to maintain the Local Rule at Whistling Straits for future tournaments, such as when the PGA Championship returns there in 2015, and when it hosts the Ryder Cup there in 2020.

Dustin Johnson's confusing penalization under the Local Rule was unfortunate. The Local Rule deprived him of a chance to win the tournament in a playoff, and it deprived Martin Kaymer from a major championship victory untainted by controversy. For the sake of fairness and to prevent another leaderboard-altering bunker blunder, the PGA must change the now infamous Local Rule at Whistling Straits.

As mentioned above, for an in-depth analysis of the Local Rule and other rules at issue in the controversy at the 2010 PGA Championship, see my article "What's a 'Bunker'?" in the Fall/Winter issue of the Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal. Please feel free to send me your thoughts at bpelanda@gmail.com.

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