By Brice Polender
Standing over the ball on his second shot on the 72nd hole at Oakmont, Dustin Johnson was one solid approach shot away from winning the 116th U.S. Open and erasing his name from the list of “best player to not have won a major”. Having stayed laser focused throughout the round despite the mental and emotional turbulence he must have felt from the poorly handled officiating, Johnson was completely in the zone and ready to hit his approach from 190 yards out following a perfect drive. As Johnson was about to start his swing, the silence was broken by an electronic beep of some sort that came from behind. Johnson backed off from the ball and sternly looked in the direction of the noise and muttered, “really?” in disbelief that something so distracting occurred right as he was about to hit one of the most important shots of his life. But he was quick to regain his focus and remained unwavering in his commitment to achieving his goal. He took two loose practice swings before walking up to the ball and executing the shot of his life: a perfect six iron to five feet from the cup, all but sealing his first major victory.
As he walked up the eighteenth fairway toward the green, Johnson’s expression was one of concentration and stoicism. There was not a hint of relaxation or celebration in his body language as the fans showered him with cheers and applause. Even when he sealed the victory by sinking the birdie putt, Johnson remained reserved in his celebration giving a muted fist pump. It was only when his one year old son ran into his arms that a huge smile lit up Dustin’s face and he finally began to let his guard down. This wasn’t going to end in heartbreak like last year and so many majors before.
Dustin Johnson remained perfectly stoic, only focusing on the golf course ahead of him in spite of all his past disappointments and failures to close out major championships. In fact, it was evident that those past failures had really prepared him for this moment. The memories of being so close so many times before instilled a healthy fear that prevented him from letting anything stop him from achieving his goal. He truly played like a man that had learned from his experiences.
When on the fifth green Johnson’s ball moved right as he was about to address it following a few practice strokes, Johnson quickly informed the referee that the ball had moved backwards and that he hadn’t touched it. By doing this, he guaranteed that there would be no penalty more than a stroke as he had experienced in the past with a controversial rule. In the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straights, Dustin was assessed a two stroke penalty for grounding his club in a sandy area outside of the ropes that in no way resembled a hazard. The penalty cost him what would have been a spot in a playoff.
Johnson ended up parring the fifth hole, and it seemed to be a closed issue. But later, on the twelfth hole he was notified by USGA rules official Jeff Hall that there was a possibility that he would be assessed a stroke penalty after the round if it was determined that more likely than not Dustin’s actions caused the ball to move. When all the other groups were notified and this information was presented on the broadcast, there was soon an outcry by players on social media. McIlroy, Spieth, Fowler, Els, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Luke Donald, and others denounced any suggestion that there should be a stroke penalty.
On Sunday evening former player and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee was fuming when looking for an explanation from rules official Jeff Hall for why the USGA ended up giving Johnson the stroke penalty, “I’ve seen a lot of crazy things on the golf course. A lot of crazy rule scenarios unfold. I’ve played golf for forty years. I have never nor have I ever seen anybody make a practice stroke that caused the ball to move.” When Hall and Thomas Pagel (USGA Senior Director of Rules) explained that their rationale was that the weight of evidence such as Johnson’s proximity to the ball and the time elapsed pointed to that it was more likely than not that Johnson caused the ball to move. Chamblee in disbelief pleaded, “What about what he did caused that ball to move?”
This massive disconnect between the USGA rules officials and pretty much all of the public, especially current and former players makes it clear that this was either just terrible officiating by the USGA and/or it is a terrible rule like was the case with the Calvin Johnson/ Dez Bryant non catches. Regardless, the USGA is very lucky that Johnson took care of business and that in the end the decision they came to in assessing Johnson a stroke penalty had no effect on the outcome because if it had, it would undoubtedly go down as one of the worst officiating debacles in sports history. But maybe if in the end that stroke would have affected the outcome, the USGA would have ruled differently. Perhaps the USGA’s ultimate ruling of applying the stroke penalty to Johnson was just so the whole controversy and turmoil that they caused would not result in nothing.
With those watching from the outside being livid, imagine what must have been going through Dustin Johnson’s mind, as a player who has been robbed of a chance in the past to win a major championship because of a b.s. rule/ruling. As mentioned in the beginning of the piece, it is truly remarkable that he was able to keep it from affecting him and remain poised while many of the other players at the top of the leaderboard were thrown off by the news of the pending stroke penalty.
Tiger Woods summed it up well in his tweet: “Some great golf by @DJohnsonPGA all week, strong way to finish overcoming that rules farce. Happy Father's Day to DJ and all of you.”