It was happenstance that David Price and Dustin Johnson had rooms on the same floor at Celtic Manor during last fall's Ryder Cup in Wales. Running into Johnson at the elevator one day, an embarrassed Price tried to reintroduce himself, only to be cut off by the grinning golfer, who said, "You don't have to tell me who you are."
Their paths crossed again last week in suburban Atlanta when Johnson, three over in the first round of the PGA Championship, stepped onto the 15th tee. Price, watching from a golf cart in his new role as chairman of the rules committee, said nothing, and the pro with the Elvis sideburns hit his tee shot without incident. "Hopefully," Price said later, "we won't be remembered as a couple."
Fat chance. Price and Johnson costarred in the soap-opera finish of the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits, won by Martin Kaymer. Price was the rules official who assessed Johnson a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole for grounding his club in a trampled-down bathtub bunker. Johnson was the amiable knucklehead who admitted that he had not read a boldly printed warning to the players, practically nailed to his locker, that all of the course's 1,200 sandpits—even the ones that children played in—were hazards.
Minus the penalty, Johnson would have tied for first and joined Kaymer and Bubba Watson in the three-hole aggregate playoff. Instead, Johnson became a hapless victim of mindless bureaucracy and Price the unfeeling enforcer of archaic laws. By the time Price got home to Dallas, where he serves as head professional at Bent Tree Country Club, his personal and golf-shop e-mail accounts were jammed with unsolicited rants. "It's no different than basketball fans getting upset at an official over a call," Price said in Atlanta. "The difference is there was no judgment involved in my call. Dustin admitted that he had grounded his club."
That didn't stop Price from feeling awkward when he encountered the rangy pro in front of that Celtic Manor elevator. "I told Dustin how badly I felt and how I wished I could have avoided making that call. He looked me right in the eye and said, 'There are no hard feelings.' I was very relieved."
"Well, it's kind of me, my personality," Johnson said last week, still fielding questions about Whistling Straits. "I don't ever get too angry or too mad."
Or too down, either, judging from Johnson's victory at last September's BMW Championship or his runner-up performance at last month's British Open, where one loose iron shot down the stretch kept him from pressing Darren Clarke for the claret jug. The Dustin Johnson website makes light of his Wisconsin gaffe by selling what bunker? T-shirts for $24.95 plus shipping. Granted, he'd prefer that golf fans remember him for almost winning three of the previous seven majors and not for his flamboyant flameouts. "It seems as if all the pictures that people want me to sign are of me hitting that [fairway bunker] shot," Johnson said with a laugh. "Thank you!"
Signing far fewer pictures and having no T-shirts to sell was Kaymer, who learned that winning a major at 25 and briefly ascending to No. 1 in the World Ranking doesn't make you a Snooki-level celebrity. "The nicest thing about being the defending champion is that my parking spot is right next to the clubhouse," the √ºbercalm Kaymer said at a sparsely attended press conference. Lest the reporters think he was being ironic, he added, "It was quite convenient." The previous evening, as host of the PGA champions dinner, Kaymer served up a traditional German Christmas feast of goose and red cabbage. He then sent each male guest home with a Swiss Army knife that "I always wanted to have as a kid, but I never got one, because obviously I was too young."
Now 26, Kaymer still looks "too young," but he is a genuine star in his homeland, where two-time Masters champ Bernhard Langer ruled for three decades. "I am the German face of golf now," Kaymer said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
It was Watson, surprisingly, who maintained the lowest profile of the Whistling Straits Repertory Company—surprising because Bubba had been the most expansive of the troupe, generating headlines with a pair of early-season Tour wins, a foot-in-mouth visit to France and his rub-your-eyes role as a dancing, singing hayseed in the Golf Boys' Oh Oh Oh video. (Bubba: "Tweet Tweet, I want angry birds all day long, let the bogeys go!") A Twitter enthusiast, Watson summed up his opening-round 74 at Atlanta Athletic Club by tweeting, "Rough finish today ... #golfishard."
His hashtag made the point that golf dramas aren't like seasons of Boardwalk Empire: They aren't renewable. Bubba seized the stage last Thursday morning with a four-birdie streak—he led!—but five bogeys and a double on the inward nine turned Watson into a spear carrier. He rallied with a second-round 68 that included a birdie on the treacherous 18th hole, but weekend rounds of 70--69 left the barefoot rapper in 26th place, nine shots out of the Keegan Bradley--Jason Dufner playoff.
Kaymer and Johnson showed even less form, missing the 36-hole cut of four-over 144 by one and three strokes, respectively. "The Face" at least finished with a flourish, pointing his putter at the sky when his 30-footer for birdie rolled in to a few grandstand yelps. "It was a frustrating tournament," Kaymer said after Friday's round, sweat glistening on his forearms. "I was very unfortunate on the greens. Nothing went my way. Nothing happened." Johnson, whose mood soured when he double-bogeyed the 18th on Thursday afternoon, had even less to say after his rounds, striding past reporters without turning his head.
Price, meanwhile, scored a few seconds of airtime with his third-round adjudication of a decision that let Hunter Mahan's wife, Kandi, follow him around the Highlands course with a spare driver tucked under her arm. (Great ruling. Look it up.) Eager to put Whistling Straits behind him, the rules chairman waxed philosophical about Bunkergate's place in history. "Anything you do in life," he said, "if it doesn't work out, you ask yourself, Could I have done it differently?"
Price shrugged. "I feel as if I did the right thing."
And golf moved on.
"IT'S NO DIFFERENT THAN BASKETBALL FANS GETTING UPSET AT AN OFFICIAL OVER A CALL," SAYS PRICE, WHO WAS INNUNDATED WITH UNSOLICITATED RANTS.
FRED VUICH (PRICE)
CLEARING THE AIR Price (opposite) felt awkward when he ran into Johnson several weeks after the PGA at the Ryder Cup, but the aggrieved player put the rules official at ease.
[See caption above]