OAKMONT, Pa.—Dustin Johnson finally has his major victory, winning the U.S. Open, but not without the USGA getting in his way and nearly turning their national championship into a fisaco.
Standing at the 12th tee at Oakmont Country Club, holding a two-stroke lead in the U.S. Open, Johnson got a visit from several USGA officials.
They wanted to let him know that he may have incurred a penalty back on the fifth hole. And just like that, the 116th U.S. Open was engulfed in controversy.
Johnson, on the fifth green, had called in a rules official to inform him Johnson’s ball had moved. Per USGA rules, it’s a one-stroke penalty if he had grounded his club. Johnson assured the official he hadn’t, so no harm, no foul. Until there was, at least in the USGA’s eyes.
Apparently officials reviewed video and determined that Johnson had in fact caused the ball to move. Or at least had enough question in their minds to inform Johnson—in the middle of his round—that they were reviewing it and considering assessing him a one stroke penalty.
Makes sense? Not really. You’re either sure or you’re not.
Whatever the case, Johnson had to push on. He either had a two-stroke lead over Shane Lowry
or a one-stroke lead, with seven holes still to play. At least until Lowry birdied the 12th, meaning the U.S. Open was either down to a one-stroke differential or tied.
Maybe. No one quite knew, because the USGA didn’t know.
What a finish. What a way to send Johnson on his way in search of his first major victory.
Thoughts immediately returned to the 2010 PGA Championship, when Johnson held a one-stroke lead at the 18th, until he incurred a two stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker. It was a brutal break, but one of Johnson’s own doing.
If he caused the ball to move at No. 5, then sure. This was his fault.
But why did the USGA need to wait until after Johnson finished his round to level a decision? Every player thus had to play with the specter of a single-stroke rules infraction looming over the entire tournament. At the 14th, Johnson finally cracked, carding his first bogey of the day. The tournament was now tied, with Lowry and Johnson at 4-under. Or maybe Lowry had a one-stroke lead. Who knew?
It’s impossible not to wonder how the little meeting on 12 was impacting Johnson. He appeared calm, but rarely does he show much emotion. The crowd was behind him before. In the final holes of the round, hearing the penalty news in the radios in their ears, they elevated polite claps to downright screaming.
“Come on DJ!” they yelled as he marched to the 15th green. Meanwhile, Lowry was in the midst of a tailspin that threatened to render the USGA’s indecision obsolete, bogeying 14, 15 and 16 to drop three strokes behind Johnson.
By the time Johnson walked to the 16th green, the lead over Lowry and Scott Piercy
was two, which in this U.S. Open—let’s dub it the Ping Pong Open, gotta win by at least two—might be what Johnson would need to win. The crowd knew as much, which is why when Johnson drained a six-footer for par on 16, it exploded. The lead, penalty or not, was still his.
“DJ! DJ! DJ!” they screamed.
Johnson then played the final holes as a way of exorcising all the demons that had built up around him for so long. He holed a clutch par putt on 17 that was roughly the same distance as a putt he missed last year to lose Chambers Bay. He bombed a 303-yard drive on 18 that was nowhere near the rough that had bedeviled him at Whistling Straits. After striping his drive straight down the middle, Johnson got a pat on the back from playing partner Lee Westwood
, who knows more than anyone, including Johnson, what it’s like to go through a career never having won a major
And then Johnson dropped a 190-yard approach shot to within mere feet of the hole. From there, it was a short putt to the championship, far beyond the reach of any penalty. The memory of last year’s three-putt on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open, if not fully erased, at least lost much of its sting. Johnson finished the tournament at four under par, three strokes ahead of Lowry, Piercy, and Jim Furyk.
Watching the proceedings from the 18th green was none other than Jack Nicklaus, who had little patience for the way the USGA handled the entire rules question. “I think it’s very unusual,” Nicklaus told Yahoo Sports. You either have [a penalty] or you don’t have one. It’s very unfair to the player … If they were going to penalize him, they should have penalized him, and let him get on with his job.”
As it turned out, Johnson did get penalized a stroke for grounding his club. Per USGA executive director Mike Davis, Johnson incurred a penalty because video clearly shows he grounded his club.
According to Davis, the rules official told Johnson, “We believe you incurred a one-stroke penalty,” but they did not want to assess it before Johnson saw the video.
But in the end, the penalty didn’t matter. The U.S. Open, with an emphatic punch to the gut of the USGA via a closing birdie on 18, now belongs to Dustin Johnson