OAKMONT, Pa. – No more will the question be asked about Dustin Johnson – “How has that guy never won a major?”
Not even the United States Golf Association – at its misguided, mind-numbing worst – could stand in his way this time.
Johnson responded to an unimaginable distraction in the middle of his final round Sunday to bring home the 116th U.S. Open championship at Oakmont Country Club.
It was not without a controversy that echoed through the entire golf world.
Here’s how it went: Facing a 6-foot par putt on the fifth green, Johnson took two practice strokes and then put his putter behind the ball, but didn’t ground the club. Johnson then backed off and asked a rules official to come over because he had seen his ball move.
Johnson maintained that he did nothing to make the ball move – a stance backed up by his playing partner, Lee Westwood – and proceeded to make his par putt.
But on the 12th tee, a USGA rules official approached Johnson and told him the incident would be reviewed after his round. That meant a one-stroke penalty could be coming. Under Rule 18-2, a player can be penalized if it’s determined he or she caused the ball to move.
“We put him on notice. Based on what we saw it could lead to a penalty stroke,” Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and competition, said during Fox Sports’ television broadcast. “We thought that was the only thing we could do. We think it was fair that we notify Dustin and give him the opportunity to see what we saw at the end of the round.”
Imagine the Sabres scoring a goal in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals that might have been struck with a high stick. The goal stands and play continues, but minutes later, officials tell the team the goal will be reviewed after the game – and might not count. That’s pretty much what Johnson went through. He was forced to play the final seven holes not knowing what his final score would be.
Reaction to the USGA’s decision was swift … and brutal.
“This is ridiculous,” Rory McIlroy wrote on Twitter. “No penalty whatsoever for DJ. Let the guy play without this crap in his head. Amateur hour from USGA.”
“Lemme get this straight … DJ doesn’t address it. It’s ruled that he didn’t cause it to move. Now you tell him he may have? Now? This a joke?” Jordan Spieth asked on Twitter.
It would have been easy for things to fall apart after Johnson dropped into a tie for the lead – or maybe one back – with a bogey on the par-4 14th hole. It’s hard to imagine what must have been going through his head walking off that green.
This isn’t the first time a controversial ruling has affected Johnson in a major, after all. He missed out on a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship when he was penalized for grounding his club in a bunker.
Not to mention the rest of his heartbreak in majors. Just last year, he blew a 12-footer that could have won this tournament, then missed the 4-footer coming back to get into a playoff.
With all of that hanging over him, the gallery at Oakmont was filled with a nervous energy. Even for Johnson, this seemed like too much.
But then, over a four-hole stretch, he completely changed the narrative. In what will go down as one of golf’s best-ever displays of mental toughness, Johnson bore down and grinded out a 10-foot par putt on the 16th hole. He escaped the “big mouth” bunker in front of the 17th hole and made another par.
With Shane Lowry, his closest competitor, sputtering, Johnson came to the 18th tee with a three-shot lead.
At that point, even a penalty wouldn’t be catastrophic – provided Johnson could make a par. But he did one better. After striping a 300-yard drive down the fairway, Johnson endured one final distraction – a horn sounded as he addressed his iron shot, forcing him to back off – then stepped up and hit a laser right at the pin, leaving a 5-foot putt for birdie.
He calmly sank that, sending a subtle message to the USGA about what they could do with their rules review.
“Finish in style, right?” Johnson said.
The penalty stroke ultimately was assessed, not that he cares.
“It doesn’t matter now, but … I’m glad it didn’t matter, because that would have been bad,” he said. “It worked out.”
His official total Sunday thus reads 1-under-par 69, for a 72-hole total of 4-under 276.
“I thought what you did with all that crap they threw at you was pretty good,” none other than Jack Nicklaus told Johnson as he walked off the 18th green with his wife, Paulina Gretzky, and their son, Tatum.
Johnson becomes the fifth player in the last 100 years to win the U.S. Open after a runner-up finish, joining Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Payne Stewart and Bobby Jones.
“Honestly, I don’t even know yet,” Johnson said when asked how his win feels. “After last year, to come back this year and perform like this, you know, I think it shows what kind of golfer I am. It was awesome.”
The U.S. Open being the everyman’s championship, it was fun for a while to dream about the possibilities of someone more like us winning.
First-round leader Andrew Landry would have fit the bill nicely. The world’s 624th-ranked player made it through both local and sectional qualifying to even get into the field – the ultimate underdog scenario. He crashed to earth with a final-round 78 to finish in a tie for 15th.
Lowry, the third-round leader could have fit the script, too. The 29-year-old Irishman is ranked 41st in the world – so he’s at a level just a microscopic sliver of the population will ever reach – but one look at him shows what we can relate to. He wears an unruly beard and carries a few extra pounds – which isn’t exactly uncommon for most of us.
He, too, wasn’t able to handle the pressure that comes from the toughest test in golf.
“Bitterly disappointed, standing here,” said Lowry, who became the third player in U.S. Open history to lose a lead of four shots or more. “It’s not easy to get yourself in a position I got myself in today. It was there for the taking, and I didn’t take it.”
The truth is, the U.S. Open usually produces a winner who is nothing like us. That’s certainly true of Johnson.
With his majestic, towering tee shots, the ProTracer on his drives look like missile launches. At 6-foot-4 and a lean 190 pounds, he’s got the build of a shooting guard. He can dunk a basketball with ease, after all.
“Simply the most talented athlete ever to play golf,” fellow competitor Graeme McDowell wrote on Twitter after Johnson’s win.
But for all his genetic gifts, he shared one thing in common with the rest of us. Johnson had never won a major championship – until Sunday, that is.
“After everything I’ve been through in the majors, I’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times,” he said. “To finally get that major win, it’s huge. It gets me a lot more confidence going into every major to know that I can win.”