Calling a foul on unseen official

The Case of the Grounded Club already is steeped in golf lore.

We’ve heard from Dustin Johnson, the long-drive blaster whose cavalier unfamiliarity with the ground rules at Whistling Straits cost him a chance at winning the PGA Championship in a playoff on Sunday.

We’ve heard from Johnson’s playing partner, Nick Watney, and Johnson’s contrite but inept caddie, Bobby Brown.

We’ve heard from Whistling Straits owner Herb Kohler (“hard lessons in life, I tell you, but it was on the rules sheet”), and we’ve heard from PGA rules official David Price. Although he saw nothing untoward as Johnson prepared his escape from the bunker that didn’t present the usual trappings of a bunker, Price was informed about Johnson grounding his club – a gaffe worth a two-stroke penalty – by a fellow rules official watching on TV.

We’ve heard from everybody, it seems, except that guy: The self-appointed curator of Truth, Justice and the American Way, detached from the gathering drama of the year’s final major golf tournament because he believes he’s got a higher calling.

No matter that there’s a difference between the literal letter of the law and the spirit of the law. No matter that Johnson’s violation, as careless as it was, did not render him with anything that could be construed as an advantage.

Most of us who follow sports revel in the competition. Even from a distance – driving down a highway, listening to a broadcaster’s voice against the static of a faraway radio signal – something about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat tethers us to the experience.

But there are others who watch sports – the guy who first blew the whistle on Dustin Johnson, for instance – because it’s the competitors’ agony that gives them a thrill.

Even though I don’t know the identity of the rules official who alerted the world to the grounded-club infraction at Whistling Straits, I’m familiar with him.

He is deaf to the sound of a buzzing gallery anticipating a fantastic finish. He is blind to the dazzling Sunday panorama of the 18th green, where the colors of the grass and trees and water and shirts in the bleachers, obscured for hours by the bright sun, become distinct in the early-evening shade.

He professes to love golf, but the game he really loves is “Gotcha!” – the cat-and-mouse exercise that makes him a winner if he manages to spot a competitor violating one of golf’s 1.2-million codes regarding parliamentary procedure.

He doesn’t play favorites. What he plays is the field: If you’re in it, he’s studying the television screen for clues on how to boot you out. He was satisfied to see Dustin Johnson eliminated from the PGA playoff, but he was no less satisfied when TV replays revealed Craig Stadler guilty of “building a stance” during the 1987 Andy Williams Open at Torrey Pines.

To refresh your memory: Stadler found his drive on a muddy lie, under a low-hanging tree branch. Unable to stand upright for the approach shot to No. 17, some imagination was required, and Stadler was up to it. He removed a towel from his bag, placed his knees on the towel so that his pants legs would stay dry, and hooked the ball around the trunk of the tree.

Stadler’s remarkable ingenuity, which ensured his place among the leaders going into Sunday, was replayed before CBS’ telecast of the final round. Several callers contacted the network, noting Stadler had broken rule 13-3/2 – it prohibits the “building of a stance” – by putting a towel between his knees and the mud.

Even though tour officials didn’t reprimand Stadler on the spot, a two-stroke penalty, administered a day later, would’ve been a reasonable consequence. Ah, but because Stadler had signed his Saturday scorecard without reporting himself in violation of the rule against building a stance, he was disqualified from the tournament.

I’ve got no evidence the official who caught Johnson grounding his club on that gallery-trampled area at Whistling Straits called a “bunker” was among those callers who pointed out Stadler’s towel in 1987. But he could’ve been, because extracting the joy from golf – turning it from a game into a rules-laden obstacle course – is what he perceives is his duty.

He doesn’t limit his “Gotcha!” to golf, by the way. He’s the youth-league coach who’d rather his kids win a game by a technical forfeit (ineligible roster member, late arrival, banned equipment) than play the game itself. He’s the high-school administrator disqualifying potential state-champion relay teams because the uniform logos aren’t consistent, or disqualifying potential state-champion football teams because of a clerical oversight regarding one student’s lapsed physical exam.

He’s cranky and intolerant, but give him this: He’s eternal. He was at Whistling Straits last weekend, almost 100 years after forcing Jim Thorpe to surrender his 1912 Olympic gold medals after it was learned he’d earned a modest salary playing minor league baseball.

“I hope I will be partly excused by the fact I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things,” Thorpe wrote to Amateur Athletic Union secretary James Sullivan. “In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I know several other college men had done, except they did not use their own names.”

The AAU wasn’t moved by Thorpe’s plea. It revoked his amateur status, and the International Olympic Committee followed the AAU’s cue, stripping him of medals that finally were returned to Thorpe’s family in 1983 – 30 years after he died in poverty.

A burgeoning superstar who’s already earned $2.5 million on the PGA Tour, Dustin Johnson has nothing in common with Jim Thorpe. Nothing in common, perhaps, except this: Their humiliation gave the eternal sports watchdog a chance to consider himself important, as indispensable as the rule book he memorized, but whose context he never grasped.