Saturday 24 March 2018

Read 'em and weep

Johnson pays ultimate price for failure to note local rules as McIlroy is foiled by tricky greens

Rory McIlroy reacts to a shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the US PGA at Whistling Straits on Sunday. Photo: AP
Rory McIlroy reacts to a shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the US PGA at Whistling Straits on Sunday. Photo: AP

Karl MacGinty

READ 'em and weep! Rarely has that old poker adage seemed more appropriate to golf.

As Martin Kaymer emerged from a chaotic final day at the US PGA with his first Major title, Dustin Johnson had to accept the devastating consequences of not reading the rules.

And Rory McIlroy, who finished just one stroke shy of the play-off, will be tantalised by thoughts of what might have been if he'd read a few of his putts on Sunday just a tad better.

Johnson certainly was the fall guy as Pete Dye's 'Disney' links at Whistling Straits threw up one of the craziest finishes in Major championship history.

The massed galleries booed and chanted 'let him play' when Johnson was denied a place alongside Kaymer and Bubba Watson in the play-off when a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a sand bunker on the final hole dropped him from a share of first into a tie for fifth on nine-under par.

One can only imagine the consequences had the popular American not missed a putt from inside seven feet for par at 18 and embarked on a 'victory' celebration before learning of his transgression.

"It's unfortunate," said Johnson (26), as he graciously conceded the error had been his alone and the decision of the Championship Rules Committee had been correct. "The only worse thing that could have happened was if I'd made the putt on the last," he added.


Johnson is one of the most gifted and powerful prospects in professional golf. He also showed commendable strength of character this summer by bouncing back into contention at the Majors after throwing away a six-stroke lead with a nightmare closing-round 82 at June's US Open, which was won by Graeme McDowell.

Yet in failing to read and digest Local Rule No 1 on the US PGA Championship bulletin given to every player and was pinned on the wall beside his locker, Johnson confirmed suspicions he's not the sharpest saw in the tool-box.

In fairness, Johnson was suckered into his grievous mental error on Sunday evening by Dye's design, which features 1000-or-so bunkers, many of them so far out of play they're more likely to invite spectator picnics than golf balls.

Johnson believed that the ill-defined area of sand well to the right of the last fairway, and in which spectators had been standing before his ball landed there, was merely "a piece of dirt which had been trampled by fans".

The hillocks and mounds on the Straits Course might look like dunes but are, in fact, earthen (in many instances made up of soil bulldozed over old railway rolling stock).

Yet every grain of sand on the course was imported in 150,000 trucks, explaining the logic behind the Championship Committee's pre-tournament edict that: "All areas of the course which were designed and built as sand bunkers will be played as bunkers (hazards) whether or not they've been raked. This will mean that many bunkers positioned outside of the ropes, as well as some areas of bunkers inside the ropes, close to the rope line, will likely include numerous footprints, heel prints and tyre tracks during play ... no free relief will be available from these conditions."

Johnson conceded: "Obviously, I know the rules and I can't ground my club in a bunker. Maybe I should have looked at the rules sheet a little harder."

Good idea, though it's a pity it cost Johnson a potential $980,000 and a first Major title to learn it!

Johnson's playing companion in the final group, Nick Watney, who shot a calamitous 81 on Sunday, confessed: "I don't think anyone reads the (local rules) sheet (handed out at every tournament)."

Yet Kaymer and Watson both took care to read the fine print last week.

Indeed, when it comes to method and mental strength, Kaymer's performance on at Whistling Straits was akin to his boyhood idol Bernhard Langer.

Having won his first Major at 25, two years younger than Langer, and assuming he'll avoid the yips that bedevilled the iconic German, Kaymer looks good enough to exceed Langer's haul of two Majors.

After sinking a phenomenal 15-foot par putt on 18 to force his way into the three-hole play-off, Kaymer merely shrugged off the inevitability of big-hitter Watson's birdie at the 10th -- the first extra hole.

He then turned the pressure back on the American with a birdie of his own at the formidable par-three 17th.

Kaymer wrapped it all up with a simple lay-up bogey out of the right rough at 18 after Watson cracked, first hitting his tee shot into the right rough and his approach into the hazard fronting the green.

Kaymer, the seventh first-time winner in the last eight Majors, later said he'd been "inspired by McDowell's victory at Pebble Beach" to truly believe he too could win in golf's most formidable arena.

US Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin yesterday admitted he was especially impressed with the par-saving putt at the final hole that ensured Kaymer of his place in the play-off.

"That putt on 18 was pretty incredible," Pavin enthused. "Those are the putts you dream about making. Martin played extremely solid golf. He's going to be a tough guy to play against out there at Celtic Manor."

Like the vast majority of players, Kaymer first had to serve his apprenticeship at the Majors and he revealed that a final-day setback at St Andrews this July served as a steep learning-curve.

"I played the last four or five holes at the Open in four over and that was shocking for me because I never really screwed up a tournament before," he explained. "Yet I thought about it a long time, worked out what the reason was and it helped me a lot today."

On that count, McIlroy has little if any soul-searching to do in the wake of the US PGA Championship. As he finished in a tie for third place (with Zach Johnson on 10 under after a level-par 72 on Sunday), the Holywood youngster looked incredibly cool and composed in the pressure-pot situation of contending on Sunday afternoon at the Majors.


He's finished third in the Majors twice before, at last year's PGA in Hazeltine and at St Andrews recently, but McIlroy truly contended here and even if he missed a few fairways and greens, he still kept his rhythm. The nerveless shots McIlroy hit into 17 and 18, for example, offered irrefutable evidence of his ability to handle with ease the greatest pressure in golf.

So it must have been utterly exasperating for the Irish youngster to miss three putts from inside seven feet (at six, eight and 15) on Sunday and go so close with several more from 12 feet or more on the back nine when all he needed was for two of those to drop to clinch his first Major title.

Putting has long been perceived as McIlroy's only weakness yet, as he benefits from concentrated work with Padraig Harrington's short-game guru, Dr Paul Hurrion, there's precious little wrong with the 21-year-old's technique.

McIlroy proved this on Saturday when he had 12 one-putts in the round of 67, which put him into contention for the first time going into the final day at a Major, while he finished the tournament tied fourth in the putting stats with an average of 27 per round.

Like many streaky putters, McIlroy's confidence in his ability to read the lines grows with every putt he sinks, to the point where he can't miss from any angle or distance (as at Quail Hollow this season).

Yet it also shrinks if a few slide by, so it might be therapeutic for him to involve his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, a little more in reading the awkward ones and share the burden with him.

As McIlroy headed on a sailing holiday to the Mediterranean with a few mates this week, he could take comfort from the knowledge that he found it so easy to navigate his way through the storm-tossed final nine holes at a Major championship.

Irish Independent

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