As the sun began to set on Oakmont Country Club, just outside Pittsburgh, PA on Sunday evening, Dustin Johnson stood on the 18th green celebrating his first major championship victory by hoisting the US Open Championship trophy. The elusive major championship, which has eluded him for so long after many crushing close calls, did so no more. Johnson, 31 and a South Carolina native, defeated runners-up Shane Lowry, Scott Piercy, and Jim Furyk by 3 strokes to win the tournament known as “golf’s toughest test.” While Johnson (-4) ended up defeating the aforementioned trio by three strokes, it was not without drama.
It all began on the green on No. 5 where Johnson, who is no stranger to controversy in the biggest of moments (see the 2010 PGA Championship), was preparing to hit his putt for par. After taking his normal practice strokes next to the ball and moving his putter behind it, the ball appeared to move ever so slightly. Johnson, who never grounded his club behind the ball prior to its movement, immediately backed off and alerted the USGA rules official walking with the group that his ball had moved. The official came over and asked Johnson if he had grounded his club or caused the ball to move, in which Johnson replied he had not. In a sport of honesty and integrity where penalties are generally self-imposed, the rules official accepted Johnson’s response and deemed a penalty was not necessary and the ball should be played where it currently lied.
Viewers and broadcasters alike took this to be the end of it, as Johnson and his playing partner, Lee Westwood, continued on with their round. However, the USGA had no intention of letting things go as they alerted Johnson on No. 12’s tee that after the round there would be a video review of the incident to determine if a stroke penalty would in fact be assessed. Therein lies the controversy. From that point forward Johnson and the rest of the field had to finish their rounds with an unprecedented level of uncertainty of what was going to happen. Between the difficulty of Oakmont and the magnitude of the stage at the US Open, players already had enough to think about. Yet, the USGA made them think about one more thing.
Why the USGA would wait until after the round to determine whether they would assess a penalty is beyond me. Had they immediately reviewed the video and made an assessment of whether there would be a penalty or not, there would have been no problem. Sure, they could have made the wrong call (coincidentally, I believe they did, as they ultimately assessed Johnson a penalty), but regardless Johnson and the rest of the players would have known exactly where they stood. By waiting until after the round to come to a ruling, Johnson was never certain as to exactly what his score was, nor were Lowry and Piercy, who were both still on the course and within striking distance (Furyk had finished his round earlier in the day).
Had Lowry and Piercy known Johnson would be penalized, maybe they wouldn’t have taken as many chances, like Lowry going for the green off the tee on No. 17. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure what would have happened if the USGA had acted in a different manner. However, one thing is for certain: Dustin Johnson earned every bit of this victory. Even after being told there was a potential penalty looming, Johnson did not falter or fold. Things could have gone south when he bogeyed the short par 4 No. 14, yet the ultra calm, cool, and collected Johnson gathered himself and did not allow one blemish on the scorecard turn into multiple.
After what happened on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay at last year’s US Open, to the sand incident at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, to shooting a final round 82 at Pebble Beach after holding the lead going into Sunday at the 2010 US Open, Johnson’s psyche has been through many gut-wrenching close calls. And Sunday afternoon at Oakmont could have very easily been added to that list. He would have had a great excuse to fold mentally down the stretch, but instead he continued to hit fairways and greens with little exception. That is why it was so gratifying to see him win. On the tee at No. 18, a 489 yard par 4, Johnson stepped up and lashed his drive down the middle. Then, he followed that up with what Fox analyst, Paul Azinger, called “the shot of his life,” as Johnson hit a beautiful six iron to three feet past the hole en route to only the second birdie of the day at the 18th hole and the US Open Championship.
As he approached the green on No. 18, the fans showed their appreciation for one of the gutsiest performances from one of the most embattled players on the PGA Tour, as they chanted “DJ” in unison. Probably most fitting, was immediately after he hit his birdie putt to seal the tournament, Johnson’s year and a half old son, Tatum, came walking out to greet his Dad with a victory hug on Father’s Day. It was a special moment which put an exclamation point on an undoubtedly, special day for Dustin Johnson.
Now that Johnson has finally gotten over the hump and put his name forever in golfing lore, I suspect this is not going to be the only trophy he hoists on a Sunday evening of a major championship. Johnson, has all the talent in the world and moves into #3 on the Official World Golf rankings with this US Open victory. This is, in fact, the guy who Jordan Spieth, has called “arguably the most talented player on the PGA Tour.” That’s high praise from a two-time major champion and current World #2. High enough to say “the big three” (Day, Spieth, and McIlroy), should now be “the big four?” Yeah, I’d say so. Welcome to the major championship club, DJ.