Even most casual golfers are aware of Rule 13-4b, which provides that, when the player’s ball is in a bunker (which is defined as a hazard), the player may not “touch the ground in the hazard … with his hand or club” before making a stroke.  A violation of this rule is described as “grounding” your club.  The rule is designed to prevent the player from improving his or her lie by moving sand or other material.  The penalty for a violation of this rule is two strokes, or loss of hole in match play.

Surely Dustin Johnson, a rising star on the PGA Tour, was intimately aware of Rule 13-4b when he approached his wayward tee shot on the 18th hole of the final round of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits Golf Club in Sheboygan, Wisconsin earlier this month.  Standing on the tee, Johnson led the tournament by a stroke.  He had birdied two of the last three holes of Pete Dye’s somewhat bizarre, brutal, links-like course to put himself in position to win his first major championship.

Tragically, the long-hitting Johnson lost his tee shot wide right, and the ball sailed outside the gallery ropes into a foreboding area dominated by irregular mounds, bunkers, and tall fescue grass.  When Johnson arrived at his ball, it was resting on sand which was strewn in some areas with grass and was hard-packed as a consequence of hundreds of spectators who had strolled through the area during the course of the tournament.  So many spectators were crowded around the ball that he had to ask David Price, the PGA rules official accompanying Johnson’s group, to provide clearance for his shot.

While Price repositioned the spectators, Johnson sized up his shot.  He played a 4-iron towards the green of the difficult 18th hole, which had yielded only one birdie on the day.  He ultimately missed a 7-foot putt for par that would have won the tournament, and headed towards the 10th tee to join Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson for a three-person playoff.

Not so fast.  Price pulled him aside and notified of him of a problem:  Johnson might have grounded his club in a bunker, in which case he would be assessed a 2-stroke penalty.  “What bunker?” responded the dumbfounded Johnson.  That question would prove to be a matter of controversy in the golf world for the following week, and no doubt for years to come.

Johnson did not dispute that he grounded his club before playing his shot.  Television replays confirmed the fact.  The controversy was whether his ball was in a bunker.  Johnson claimed that he reasonably assumed that his ball was resting on a grassy area that had been stomped down by foot traffic.  “It never crossed my mind that I was in a bunker,” he said.  He was.  Rather than participating in the playoff, Johnson finished tied for fifth.

Only at Whistling Straits would such a controversy arise.  Dye designed the course, which skirts the shore of Lake Michigan in northern Wisconsin, to mimic a links course.  It actually does not play like a true links course; players were able to loft conventional iron shots into the greens rather than playing “bump-and-run” shots necessitated by links courses in Scotland and Ireland.

However, the course presents a unique, intimidating challenge, featuring narrow fairways and greens tucked precariously between mounds, vast bunkers, and cliffs descending to the lakeshore.  It would not be a hospitable venue for the recreational golfer.

To create the effect of a St. Andrews in Wisconsin, Dye outdid himself with the bunkering.  The course is carved out of a vast expanse of sandy, irregular, and severe terrain, and contains roughly ten times the number of bunkers typically found on a course.  In fact, no one, even the superintendent, knows precisely how many bunkers litter Whistling Straits; they tend to blend into the rugged landscape.  The best estimate seems to be 1,100.  The Old Course at St. Andrews, in contrast, contains less than 100 bunkers.

When the PGA Championship was first played at Whistling Straits in 2004, PGA rules officials confronted the dilemma of how to treat the vast number of bunkers that extended outside the gallery ropes. One option would have been to treat bunkers outside the ropes, which were subject to traffic by spectators, as waste areas rather than hazards.  Players in that case could ground their clubs without penalty.  (I played on a links-style Dye course in Florida earlier this year that featured expansive waste areas resembling bunkers that bordered most of the par-4 and par-5 holes, through which carts travelled and in which club-grounding was permitted.)

Apparently in an effort to adhere to the integrity (or eccentricity) of Dye’s design, the PGA decided that all of the myriad of bunkers strewn across the vast, desolate outer fringes of Whistling Straits would be treated as hazards.  Notwithstanding a controversy when Stuart Appleby was penalized for grounding a club in a bunker, the PGA adhered to that rule for the 2010 championship.

To its credit, the PGA made extra efforts this year to notify players of the bunker rule.  The first item on the local rules sheet stated that “all areas of the course that were designed and built as bunkers,” no matter where located or in what condition from foot or cart traffic, were to be treated as hazards.  In addition, notices of the rule were posted in the locker room.  Johnson conceded that he never read the local rules sheet.

So, the question lingering in the wake of the controversial finish of the PGA Championship is “what is a bunker, and how do I know one when I see one?”

The rules define a bunker as “a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand or the like.”  On the vast majority of courses which feature well-defined, manicured bunkers (the term “sand trap,” while part of casual golf lexicon, does not appear in the rules), players rarely confront the bunker identity dilemma.

Questions sometimes do arise concerning the margins or unusual features of bunkers.  For example, sand which has spilled over the margin of the bunker is not part of the bunker.  (See Decision 13/1.)  Nor is “grass-covered ground” bordering or within a bunker, or a tree in a bunker, part of the bunker.  (See Decision 13/2.)  (While there was some scattered grass near Johnson’s ball, no one seriously contended that the ball was resting on “grass-covered ground.”)

The definition and rules decisions thus provide little practical insight into determining the margins of bunkers on a course such as Whistling Straits.  The principal problem confronting Johnson on the 18th hole was the unique one of spectators swarming in and around the bunker, which made it difficult to see its lip and margins.  Yet, it is the player’s responsibility to recognize that he might be in a bunker, and consult a rules official if he is uncertain.  (Price asked Johnson if he needed any assistance.)  Johnson’s caddie also might have been asleep at the wheel.

Many bloggers criticized Price for not warning Johnson that he was in a hazard.  Based on my experience as a rules official, I take issue with such sentiments.  I was taught that rules officials should not intervene unless requested to do so by the player.  Chip Sullivan, a PGA professional in southwestern Virginia who won the PGA Professional National Championship in 2007 and has played on the PGA and Nationwide Tours, shares that view.  He stated in a blog: “I can promise you that I never had a walking rules official come up and explain to me that I was in a hazard.  If he did, I would look at him as if he had five heads.”

Martin Kaymer, who won the playoff, sympathized with Johnson.  “It was very tough to see what is a bunker and what is not a bunker.” John Garrity, a writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, agreed. “Where else on the Tour do you have spectators standing in bunkers?” Reportedly, children were spotted playing• (and even building sand castles) in bunkers.  One wonders if that was part of Dye’s design concept.

Given the controversy following Johnson’s misfortune at Whistling Straits, the PGA might do well to reconsider the treatment of bunkers outside the ropes before the PGA Championship returns to Dye’s eccentric layout in 2015.  Bunkers that are worn down by pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the margins of which are obscured by throngs of spectators, might more appropriately be treated as waste areas.  (Course owner Herb Kohler indicated that he will work on creating paths through the bunkers, but that measure won’t solve the problem if spectators are still free to wander through, and construct sand castles in, the bunkers.)

In any event, it is likely that Johnson and other players will pay more attention to local rules sheets in the future.  Rory McIlroy, who finished tied for third, was asked how many players read the sheets.  “I know of at least one player who didn’t,” he responded.  It might have cost him a major championship.

Note:  Jack Ross completed an intensive rules workshop conducted by the PGA and the USGA.  This article originally appeared in Golf Rules Corner, ValleySportsNow.com (8/26/10).