David Price had a sinking feeling as he watched Dustin Johnson stroke his final putt in Sunday's final round of the PGA Championship.
Price, the head golf professional at Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas and the rules official walking with the final group on Sunday at Whistling Straits, told ESPNDallas.com via cell phone on Monday that he had just received a call over his radio from another rules official watching the broadcast on television.
"He said, 'Do not let Dustin sign his scorecard yet. We may have a problem. I think he grounded his club in the bunker not once, but twice,'" Price said.
Price, who was watching as Johnson was preparing to hit his third shot, didn't want to say anything until the hole was over.
"I'm going to let him play out the hole so that it doesn't change the way he plays a shot or anything like that in case there wasn't a violation," said Price, who was walking with the final group for the sixth straight time at the PGA Championship. "As he's putting I'm thinking, 'I could be going up to the PGA champion to tell him he's not really the champion.' He missed the putt, which didn't make it any better, but I immediately went up to talk to him."
Price asked Nick Watney, Johnson's playing partner, to stay to listen to the conversation since Watney had to sign Johnson's scorecard.
"I simply asked Dustin: 'There has been a report that you possibly grounded your club in the bunker on your second shot. I need to ask you if you know if you did or not,'" Price said. "He paused and said, 'I don't remember, but I don't think I did.' I told him that was fine, but we had to go in and look at the video."
Price said he heard Johnson say he didn't even realize he was in a bunker as they walked off the green.
Price and the other rules officials offered to take Johnson to the CBS trailer where they have high-resolution cameras, but once Johnson saw the replay in the scoring area, he knew he had grounded his club and said so. That meant a 2-stroke penalty was assessed and Johnson was out of the three-hole aggregate playoff.
"It was very difficult to have to tell him and for that to happen ... very difficult," Price said. "It's one of those things. It's a cut-and-dried rule. There's no question it was a bunker. There are 1,200 of them out there, and we put that clearly on the rules sheet. It's not a questionable call at first base or whether a guy's foot was in bounds on a pass. It wasn't a judgment call. The timing was just bad."
Price has had to give bad news to players before. He's been an official at the PGA Championship more than 20 times and has been a rules official for 11 Masters, five Ryder Cups, a couple of British Opens and this year's U.S. Open. He's headed to the Ryder Cup next month to help out with rules issues.
Price said he went up to Johnson as he was preparing to hit his second shot and asked him if he needed anything. Johnson replied that he needed the crowd moved to the right, so Price went to make sure that was being done and then waited on the fairway. He never saw Johnson ground his club.
But Price had dealt with two other questions from Johnson or his caddie about bunkers the previous few holes. On No. 14, Johnson hit into an area just past a bunker and asked if he could take some practice swings for that shot in the bunker. Since the ball wasn't in the bunker, Price told him he could. Then, on No. 16, Johnson's caddie asked if he could remove some stones near the ball. Price told him they were in a bunker and by rule they can move loose impediments as long as the golf ball doesn't move. But there was no doubt to Price that Johnson was in a bunker.
"All he had to do was ask," Price said. "He'd asked me before that. He'd been in a bunch of bunkers. You don't remind a player on every hole that you can't ground your club."
Price said the bunker on No. 18 that Johnson was in was formed like many other bunkers on the course.
"It was a rather small one, but it was an area that had been dug out and filled with sand," Price said. "The only thing that made it different than previous bunkers is that he hit the ball so far off line, it was in a bunker that had been trampled down instead of one that was finely raked. We told players on the information we gave them that all sand on the course was considered a hazard, even if there were footprints or tire marks."
Price pointed out that it was important to tell Johnson right after the 18th hole and get things figured out before he signed his scorecard and started a possible playoff.
"If he signs that card, he's disqualified and maybe that impacts whether he clinches a spot on the Ryder Cup or something like that," Price said. "So we had to take care of it then."
Price said he patted Johnson on the back and said he was sorry as Johnson left the scoring area.
"Dustin handled the whole thing with complete composure, complete grace and in a very classy manner," Price said. "I told him he may be getting a penalty and there was never a harsh word, never in animosity to me or anyone else. He handled it with complete dignity and I thought that was a real testament to the type of kid he is. You can tell he's well-liked on Tour. They were compassionate with him. A lot of people were heartbroken by this."