Dustin Johnson makes golf look so easy that it’s difficult to feel sorry for him. Yet the path he endured to become a major champion has been built with so many twists of fate, so much heartache that he eventually became a sympathetic figure.
It happened on Sunday afternoon at Oakmont, about the time USGA officials met Johnson on the 12th teebox and asked him a critical question: Is there something else that could have caused his ball to move on the fifth green?
Something else, that is, other than Johnson’s own putter?
Johnson was adamant – he was not at fault. He didn’t know why it moved. Rules officials, having seen video replays, were not convinced. As the USGA’s Jeff Hall said later, “It became very apparent that we weren’t going to get to a resolution.” So they put Johnson on notice. His potential violation of Rule 18.2 would be discussed after his round – and a one-shot penalty might be enforced. A penalty that might very well affect the outcome of the tournament.
So there is Johnson, standing on the 12th tee, leading the U.S. Open — and facing uncertainty about his score. The situation, soon to be made public, would add a layer to his already growing popularity. He had been dealt another cruel hand, one that many of his fellow golfers felt was undeserved. Did he really violate the rule? And should he really be kept in limbo?
Said Paul Azinger on TV: “The whole world is pulling for this guy right now.”
Johnson, meanwhile, has seen the song-and-dance before. It happened in 2010 at the PGA Championship in Whistling Straits, the what’s-a-bunker drama that cost him a two-stroke penalty and a shot at a playoff.
That wasn’t the only close call. There was the 2010 U.S. Open and his disastrous final round after taking a three-shot lead. There was the 2011 Open Championship, in contention until a costly 2-iron out of bounds. There was last year’s U.S. Open, when he three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole, losing by one stroke by Jordan Spieth.
No surprise at his response upon seeing the officials waiting for him at the 12th tee Sunday. Here we go again.
“Just one more thing to add to the list, right?” Johnson would say later. “… It’s nothing new at this point. It’s happened so many times. I kind of expect it now.”
The only thing different this time?
It didn’t matter.
For once, Johnson would not let fate, would not let bad decisions, would not let missed putts from short range derail him. He struck his tee shot at 12 and settled into simply managing the game and managing the course. He put the blinders on, refusing to look at the big picture or the possibilities that awaited him in the scoring area. There was nothing he could do about it.
He wasn’t going to worry about his own score, nor was he planning to look at how others were faring. He didn’t realize that Shane Lowry, playing in the group behind him, was leaking oil. He didn’t know that Scott Piercy, playing in front of him, had run out of juice after a terrific 12 holes. His playing partner, Lee Westwood, had already fallen down the leaderboard, so he was no threat.
At the drivable 17, Johnson was still not sure where he stood. All he wanted was a birdie look. He plunked his tee shot in the bunker and did well to save par. At that point, he was three shots ahead of the field.
“I know this golf course; it’s very difficult and it’s very difficult to close,” Johnson said. “From 12 to 18, all I was trying to do was just one shot at a time and not worry about what anybody else was doing. Just focus on what I was doing.
“I just kept telling myself, It’s just me and the golf course. You know, I’m just playing the golf course today.”
Finally, on his walk to 18, he had an inkling something special was happening. The galleries were revved up. So was he.
Johnson split the fairway with another one of those prodigious drives – the drives that have put him in so many contending situations the last few years. But perhaps the best shot of his career came with 6-iron in hand, his approach from 194 yards to the 18th green settling 4 feet from the cup for a closing birdie. It was only the second one of the day at that notoriously difficult finishing hole.
There was a leaderboard to his right as he walked up the fairway. He did not bother to look at it. He turned to his brother Austin, who’s on his bag, and asked, “Where do we stand?”
The answer was one he wanted to hear.
After his birdie, with fiancée Paulina by his side and son Tatum in his arms, he made his way to the scoring area. The USGA had weighed the evidence and decided that there was a 51 percent-or-greater chance that Johnson had caused his ball to move backwards at address. Under the rules, they saw no other alternative than to enforce the one-stroke penalty.
“We understand not everyone is going to agree with that,” said rules official Thomas Pagel. “But the standard is not 100 percent. It’s more likely than not.”
Certainly Johnson didn’t agree with it. He remained convinced he did nothing wrong. His peers came to his defense. So did the fans who made their feelings known by booing when the ruling was mentioned at the trophy presentation. A rare negative reaction during a time for celebration.
But whether he shot 68 or 69 in the final round, or won by four shots or three makes no difference to Johnson. All he knows is he’s finally a major champion, finally fulfilled the promise he’s shown for nearly a decade, finally overcame whatever fate the golf gods had planned for him.
“Definitely a big monkey off my back,” Johnson said. “… I’ve put myself in this position many times, and to get it done is definitely sweet.”
Even so, the questions about the ruling, about its potential impact, about whether he was treated fairly are likely to continue. Luckily, the chaos it might have caused on the leaderboard was negated by Johnson’s dominance this week.
Which is why his last words before walking away with the trophy late Sunday night were this: “It just didn’t … matter.”
There was one more word in his statement but probably best to not print it on Father’s Day.