Dustin Johnson finally has his major victory, winning the U.S. Open, but not without the USGA getting in his way and almost 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 desired to let him know 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 notify him Johnson’s ball had moved right before he was about to putt. Per USGA rules, it is an one-stroke penalty if he’d grounded his club. Until there was, at least in the eyes of the USGA.
Seemingly officials determined that Johnson had in fact caused the ball to move. Or at least had enough question in their own minds to notify Johnson—in the middle of his round—that they were reviewing it and contemplating assessing him an one stroke penalty.
Makes sense? Not really. You’re either confident or you are not.
Fellow players were immediately incensed, taking to Twitter to voice their disapproval.
Whatever the case, Johnson had to push on. He had a two stroke lead over Shane Lowry, with seven holes still to play. At least until Lowry birdied the 12th, meaning the U.S. Open was either down to an one-stroke differential or tied.
Maybe. No one understood, because the USGA didn’t know.
What a means to send Johnson on his way in search of his first major success.
Thoughts instantly returned to the 2010 PGA Championship, when Johnson held an one-stroke lead at the 18th, until he incurred a two stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker. One of Johnson’s own doing, although it was a break that is savage.
But why did the USGA need to wait until after Johnson concluded his round to level a choice? At the 14th, Johnson eventually split, carding his first bogey of the day. The tournament was tied, with Johnson and Lowry at 4-under. Or perhaps Lowry had an one-stroke lead. Who knew?
It is impossible not to wonder how the little assembly on 12 was impacting Johnson. He seemed calm, but rarely does he show much emotion.
The crowd was behind him. To downright screaming, they elevated polite claps in the closing holes of the round, hearing the penalty news over the radio.
“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 Meanwhile, Lowry was in the midst of a tailspin that threatened to render the USGA’s indecision outdated, bogeying 14, 15 and 16 to drop three strokes behind Johnson.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 when Johnson drained a six footer for par on 16, it exploded. The lead, penalty or not, was his.
“DJ! DJ! DJ!” they shouted.
Johnson then played with the final holes as a way of exorcising all the devils that had built up around him for so long. He holed a clutch par putt on 17 that was about 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. Johnson got a pat on the back from playing partner Lee Westwood, who understands more than anyone, including Johnson, what it’s like to go through a career never having won a major after striping his drive down the middle.
And Johnson dropped a 190 yard shot on the green. From there, it was a short putt for the tournament, far beyond the reach of any penalty. Johnson concluded the tournament at four under par, three strokes ahead of Jim Furyk, Piercy, and Lowry.
Seeing the event from the 18th green was none apart from Jack Nicklaus, who had little patience for the way the USGA handled the entire rules question. “I think it’s quite uncommon,” Nicklaus told Yahoo Sports. You either have [a penalty] or you don’t have one. It is very unjust to the player …
Johnson did for grounding his club get penalized a stroke as it turned out. Per USGA executive director Mike Davis, Johnson incurred a penalty because video certainly reveals he grounded his club.
According to Davis, the rules official told Johnson, “We believe you incurred an one-stroke penalty,” but they didn’t need to evaluate it before Johnson saw the video.
But in the end, the penalty did not matter.