Rory McIlroy, who had left the tournament after missing the cut, wrote on Twitter: “This is ridiculous. No penalty whatsoever for DJ. Let the guy play without this crap in his head. Amateur hour from (USGA).”
By Harry Allison
Dustin Johnson had endured all forms of heartache on the last days of major championships, losing them with a dreadful final round, missed putts on the 18th green or even a penalty for a rules violation.
Now, as he walked off the 11th green at Pittsburgh’s Oakmont Country Club on yesterday, he was ahead by two strokes with seven holes left in the U.S. Open. Or wasn’t he?
As Johnson approached the 12th tee, he was told he might be assessed a one-stroke penalty for the slight movement of his ball before a putt on the fifth green. Or he might not be.
The USGA would wait until after the round to decide, which created one of the more surreal scenarios at a championship event in modern sports history: No one could be sure what the score was.
Only by widening his lead even further did Johnson guarantee that this major would not end like all the other ones he had played in. After hitting his approach shot to within five feet of the 18th hole, Johnson sank the birdie putt to secure his first career major title.
The score would not be certain until several minutes later, when Johnson indeed received the penalty, giving him a final-round 69 that left him at 4 under par for the tournament. But neither the USGA nor anyone else could deny him what he had waited so long to achieve.
“I knew I was swinging well,” Johnson said, “and I just kept thinking, ‘It’s just me and the course. I’m playing against the course. I can’t control what anyone else does.’”
Shane Lowry of Ireland, who led by four strokes entering the final round, shot a 6-over-par 76 to finish in a three-way tie for second, at 1 under par. He became the first player to blow a lead of four or more strokes entering the final round of the U.S. Open since Payne Stewart in 1998.
The issue in question was whether or not Johnson caused his ball to move before sinking a six-foot par putt. A day earlier, Lowry had called a one-stroke penalty on himself when his ball moved slightly after he addressed it before a putt on the 16th green. But after immediately alerting a rules official to the movement of his ball, Johnson said he did not cause the movement.
The issue seemed to be resolved until Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and competition, approached Johnson and appeared on the Fox broadcast to explain the situation minutes later.
Hall indicated the USGA would assess a one-stroke penalty, but wouldn’t say for sure. “We have some concerns,” he said. “We wanted to put Dustin on notice.”
The combination of those comments, the indecision by the USGA and Hall approaching Johnson about it in the middle of his round sparked a wave of outcry on social media from fans and other players alike.
Jordan Spieth, who finished at 9 over par, wrote: “This is a joke.” Even 76-year-old golf legend Jack Nicklaus weighed in, arguing with USGA executive director Mike Davis before the trophy ceremony near the 18th green. “They have to either give him the penalty or not,” Nicklaus said.
Davis said the penalty was “cut and dried” but that the proper time to discuss it was after the round, when Johnson could watch the video alongside USGA officials. “There have been many instances like this in golf,” Davis said.
Johnson, 31 years old, had spent what seemed like an eternity at the top of leaderboards at majors, at just about every time except the end.
He led after the first rounds of last year’s U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. He led entering the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open and lost it by shooting an 82. He led entering the final hole of the 2010 PGA Championship but lost as a result of a two-stroke penalty he incurred for grounding his club in a bunker.
He appeared bound for a playoff with Spieth at last year’s U.S. Open until he three-putted on the 18th green in the last round. But all along, he has been outwardly unburdened by the opportunities he has missed. When asked if last year’s U.S. Open motivated him, he deadpanned, “What happened last year?”
A birdie by Johnson on the ninth hole and a bogey by Lowry on the same hole minutes later put Johnson alone in the lead by one stroke – or tied for the lead, as it turned out. When Lowry missed a 7-foot par putt on No. 10, the lead grew to two – or one, in retrospect.
What became clear after Hall spoke to Johnson was that he would need to win by at least two strokes to be certain that the trophy was his when the last group walked off the green. Though Johnson bogeyed the 14th hole, Lowry could not provide any late drama. He bogeyed the 14th, 15th and 16th holes to finish in a tie with Jim Furyk and Scott Piercy.
Finally, things broke in Dustin Johnson’s favor at a major, even when they didn’t.