• August 24, 2010

Dustin, Jackie, and The First Tee

Dustin, Jackie, and The First Tee

Dustin, Jackie, and The First Tee 150 150 Tom Watson

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of listening to two young First Tee participants speak in front of an adult group of First Tee supporters here in Kansas City. They spoke of who they were and how The First Tee has positively affected their lives. For those who are unfamiliar with The First Tee, it is an organization which introduces youngsters to golf and to the ‘Nine Core Values’ associated with the game, which not so incidentally are the tenets of living a wholesome life. Values such as Integrity, Sportsmanship, Respect, and Honesty are routinely used in teaching the game to some 2500 young people in our community’s program, run by a wonderfully committed man, Pat Zuk.

After listening to Sierra and Jimmy speak, it was my turn to address our program’s supporters.  I spoke to the core value of doing the right thing even when you are negatively affected by it…which brought me to Dustin Johnson’s rules violation on the final hole during this year’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, a beautifully sculpted test of golf by the infamous designer/architect Pete Dye. I think it one of the most beautiful golf courses I have ever had the pleasure to play, with over 1000 bunkers to both frame the exquisite views of Lake Michigan and put the golfer in deep trouble if he or she strays off line just a little bit.

With over a thousand bunkers, the PGA decided that even if the bunkers were walked through by the gallery or driven through by carts, they would still be considered a normal bunker or “hazard,” which has the rules restriction that the golfer may not touch the sand behind the ball with the clubhead before the ball is hit. This restriction applies to a water hazard as well…you can’t touch the ground or water inside the marked water hazard with your clubhead as you address the ball. This is called “grounding” of the club in the USGA’s rule book.

On the last hole of the tournament, barring a playoff, Dustin sprayed his drive off line into a patch of sand where the gallery had obviously been walking. When he played his shot, he “grounded” or touched the sand with his club at address before he hit the shot, which according to the posted rules in the locker room, first tee, and written on the “Local Rules” sheet given to the golfer before he teed off in the first round, explicitly said that ALL the sand bunkers or sandy areas on the golf course were considered “hazards” and so “grounding” the clubhead was not allowed.

When a rules official confronted Dustin with this rules violation, he was obviously disappointed but understood he committed a rules infraction and took it like a man, saying he hadn’t read the rules and it was his fault for the violation. I truly believe that after losing the final round lead at this year’s US Open and now PGA setback, he will be better off, as these defeats will steel his resolve. Time will tell but expect to see and hear a lot more of Dustin in the future. He will win majors.

Coincidentally I have made the same mistake Dustin made. I venture to guess every pro golfer has made some sort of rules mistake costing him or her shots and a smaller paycheck.

Playing the second round of the 2009 Masters on the famous dogleg left par 5 13th, I spun my third shot off the front of the green into the long (for Augusta!), but manicured grass rough just over the creek. I proceeded to hit a great lofted shot to within inches for an easy par…or so I thought until a rules official called my attention to the fact that I hit the shot from within the water hazard. I had taken my normal two practice swings and hit the turf each time, “grounding” my clubhead inside the hazard….a forgetful and costly mistake as I had to add the penalty of two more shots to my 5 for an ugly 7. I missed the 36 hole cut by more than two shots so it wasn’t nearly as costly as Dustin’s error in this year’s PGA, but still I had to own up to my own stupidity…I knew better… but wasn’t thinking.

Golf’s most heartbreaking rules violation occurred during the final round of the 1957 US Women’s Open at the always tough Winged Foot in New York. The great Hawaiian Jackie Pung won the tournament by one shot over Betsy Rawls, but was disqualified for signing an incorrect score card.

Golf’s rules say the golfer must confirm each individual hole’s correct score for the round on a scorecard kept by the other golfer. Both she and Betty Jameson, who kept Jackie’s score, recorded 5’s on the fourth hole when they both actually scored 6’s. Even though they both recorded their proper total scores for the 18 holes, both were disqualified. It was the most profound loss for Jackie, as I always felt so bad for her anytime I had the pleasure to be in her company…to have won the most important tournament in golf and have it taken away by a seemingly insignificant rule of golf.

But this heartbreaking story is a good lesson for us all. Golf, like life, isn’t a fair game. The First Tee is out there on playgrounds, in schools, and on golf courses all over the world teaching kids about golf and life. Support them if you can…it will pay big rewards for our kid’s future…and teach them a game for a lifetime.

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