Only De Vicenzo can empathize with Johnson

1968 MastersTournament runner-up Robert De Vicenzo knows what it feels like to left out of playoff, like Dustin Johnson at the 2010 PGA Championship

After a week in which golf has not yet moved on from the Dustin Johnson incident at the PGA Championship, it seems that only one man in the world could make sense of the situation - Roberto de Vicenzo.

 

Who else can empathize with a playoff opportunity at a major being taken away after the fact by a breach of golf's sometimes arcane rules?

De Vicenzo famously declared "What a stupid I am" after signing for a higher score than the one he shot at the 1968 Masters Tournament, costing himself a place in a playoff against Bob Goalby.

In Johnson's case, the subject of De Vicenzo's modifier is different.

"I think it's a stupid rule," De Vicenzo said of the local bunker statute at Whistling Straits that doomed Johnson from challenging Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson in a playoff.

"It's a difficult golf course to understand," De Vicenzo explained. "Not so easy to understand what is sand trap. It's easy to make a mistake.The guy he made a mistake. I never seen a sand trap where people walk inside. First time in my life I seen this. I think it's a stupid rule."

Stupid or not, the 87-year-old De Vicenzo recognized the infraction instantly when he watched the PGA on television from his home in the Ranelagh outside Buenos Aires.

"I think, 'He loses two strokes,' as soon as he put the club down in the sand," he said.

Where De Vicenzo sympathizes with Johnson is that it came to that in the first place.

"I feel sorry for him because he no have help," De Vicenzo said. "I think a player have to be helped. When you are inside 3,000 people you don't know what to do, some people have to help."

This is a point that is near and dear to De Vicenzo's heart. While the circumstances of his infraction and Johnson's differ greatly, the atmospheres were similar. De Vicenzo signed an incorrect card in the hectic aftermath of a final-hole bogey at Augusta National. The scoring table back then was tucked between the gallery and the apron of the 18th green. He was still trying to digest what happened as fans stared and a club member was encouraging him to hurry to be taken to an interview area.

"We not have no protection," De Vicenzo said of the way scores were attested and signed 43 years ago. "You sign the scorecard three feet from the 18th green with people all around me. Everything is different (now)."

Johnson was required to recognize his surroundings in his own chaos in the heat of the 72nd hole at a major. At great issue before he hit his shot was the proximity of the crowd, which obscured his view of the defining features of the bunker his ball rested in. Johnson never denied grounding his club and he knew that all bunkers on the course were to be played as such. His only case was that he didn't realize he was in a bunker.

That confusion was perpetuated in the aftermath as media and rules officials talked to Johnson and the television audience about "all sand" at Whistling Straits being considered hazards when in fact the local rule clearly stated that it applied only to areas "that were designed and built as sand bunkers."

It made Johnson question his own understanding of the local quirks.

"Rules are rules," Johnson told the Associated Press two days after the PGA. "Obviously, I know the rules very well. I just never thought I was in a bunker, or I would have never grounded my club. Maybe walking up to the ball, if all those people hadn't been there, maybe I would have recognized it as a sand trap. I knew there wasn't any waste bunkers. But all the bunkers on the course had a darkish color to the sand. This was white dirt."

De Vicenzo understood Johnson's plight from 5,700 miles away.

"Fantastic golf course, but not very clean," he said. "At St. Andrews you know where it is sand and fairway and what is rough. It is not so easy here. The PGA has to make a registration to the rule on this golf course. This was no help to the association or the game."

Both these incidents point to some of the ridiculousness of golf's rigid rules. While other sports adjust to the complexities of evolving eras, golf holds fast to rules that make little sense in a modern context.

You can fix ball marks but not spike marks in the line of your putt.

You can get relief from ground under repair or burrowing animal holes in all manner of places but not sand-filled divots in the middle of the fairway.

Pros must be accountable for their own scorecards in a digital age when walking scorekeepers instantly register their totals for the whole world to see.

Sometimes intent is taken into account. Other times it's deemed irrelevant.

De Vicenzo and Johnson will be forever linked by the cruel fate of golf's rulebook. One man's math skills were questioned. The other's reading habits were criticized.

Both, however, are defined by their acceptance of the rules and the respective reactions to their fates. De Vicenzo called himself stupid. Johnson said "it's no one's fault but mine."

De Vicenzo calls the respect he gained from his Masters experience "my green jacket." Similarly, Johnson's grace in the face of crushing disappointment gained him legions of fans including the men who adjudicated his penalty.

"He couldn't have been more of a gentleman about it," said Mark Wilson, the co-chairman of the PGA of America rules committee.

De Vicenzo already had a British Open victory to soothe his grief over his Masters setback. Johnson doesn't have that piece of golf immortality to fall back on.

"I cry for a year," De Vicenzo said of his bygone mistake. "But the guy going to cry for his life. I'm sorry for him."

 

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