What is the distance between a golfer and his first major? For Dustin Johnson, it might have been the last four feet of Oakmont he traversed—a birdie putt on the 72nd hole, the same length he faced last year at Chambers Bay.
Johnson left no doubt this time around—doubt over the outcome, doubt over his mental fortitude, doubt over a penalty he may or may not have incurred (more on that)—and celebrated like only he could. A stuttered fist pump. Muted. Cool. Like he had more holes to play. There is no sense of relief for a man who is always relieved. Somehow, Johnson managed to ignore the emotions that we all felt for him over the last 12, torturous months.
Johnson has his US Open title. He has his major championship.
And the distance he faced in that last four-foot putt was greater than anyone in memory.
“There is no sense of relief for a man who is always relieved.”
You can recall the 2010 US Open, when DJ led after 54 holes only to shoot 82 in the final round. You can bring up the 2010 PGA Championship and a grounded club in a disputed bunker. We’ll never forget the short putt he waved wide in the Pacific Northwest. Then you factor in the questionable injuries, the leave of absence, the quiet drug suspension and all the shots at his intelligence.
Johnson overcame it all on Sunday in Western Pennsylvania and yet he had one more hurdle to climb. What is a fraction of an inch to a man who hits the ball a mile? Nearly everything on the fifth hole of the final round.
Johnson stood over a short par putt and took a few practice strokes. When he moved to address the ball, it flinched backward perhaps a centimeter, maybe less. Johnson noticed the movement and called over the rules official. It was determined then that he wouldn’t incur a one-stroke penalty. Johnson had not caused the ball to move.
Later on, as Shane Lowry, who held a four-shot lead to start the day, stumbled and other contenders like Sergio Garcia and Brendan Grace ran out of steam, the USGA caught up with Johnson.
The one-stroke penalty was back in play, but because Johnson disputed the decision, the governing body wouldn’t come up with a final ruling until after the round. Essentially, DJ no longer knew his official score.
Everyone lost it. Fans flooded social media with complaints. Paul Azinger and Brad Faxon buried the USGA on Fox’s broadcast. The indecision undermined everything that took place on the golf course.
Then the stars chimed in. Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler among others shared their displeasure with the USGA.
This is ridiculous… No penalty whatsoever for DJ. Let the guy play without this crap in his head. Amateur hour from @USGA
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) June 19, 2016
DJ took the high road to take that penalty. This ordeal cannot be overlooked because of a multiple shot victory
— Jordan Spieth (@JordanSpieth) June 20, 2016
— Rickie Fowler (@RickieFowler) June 19, 2016
The back nine suddenly had added intrigue in a way none of us wanted.
But through it all, Johnson remained stoic. He continued to bomb his driver and held onto a two-shot lead into 17th. At the drive-able par-4, 17th, Johnson pulled out the big stick again. The jester showed that he was going down swinging, only he didn’t go down at all.
He parred 17, then after a drive that landed somewhere near Philadelphia on 18, Johnson stuck his six-iron approach to well inside feet.
He strode up the fairway to raucous applause and chants of DJ. Always the gunslinger, he looked like an antihero out of a Western—a man, outwardly flawed, who took on Johnny Law and succeeded by remaining true to himself. He is a Johnny Cash song or a Clint Eastwood movie. He is the man we cheer for when the glitz and glamour grows old.
The birdie stamped Johnson’s mark on the American game in America’s championship.
“He is a Johnny Cash song or a Clint Eastwood movie. He is the man we cheer for when the glitz and glamour grows old.”
The USGA did impose a penalty, though it was a moot point if not a mute one.
A final round 69 that was really a 68; four-under-par total that was really five-under-par.
Johnson defeated the USGA, the most difficult golf course in the world, the toughest field in the sport and a near decade of demons. He won. He finally won.