Dustin Johnson’s win at the U.S. Open was one of the weirdest and gutsiest in major championship history.
In 30 years of paying close attention to golf, I’ve never seen a situation where a player didn’t know if he had the lead, was one behind or two ahead for the final seven holes of a major.
Ultimately, he was penalized a stroke by the USGA once he finished the round, but it was moot because he had a four-shot lead.
Of course, there’s no way to quantify such a thing, but as an example of grace and poise under pressure there are few performances to equal Johnson’s long-awaited first win in a major.
On top of the final round pressure, consider that Johnson was also dealing with memories from coming agonizingly close in majors, such as last year’s three-putt to lose on the 72nd hole in the U.S. Open and the penalty for inadvertently grounding his club in 2010 PGA Championship that kept him out of a playoff.
Like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and announcer Brad Faxon, I was angry with the USGA. How could they mess with Johnson like this? It seemed unfair, particularly after he consulted with an official on the fifth green who ruled that he didn’t cause the ball to move. I wouldn’t have blamed Johnson for feeling like he was eternally doomed and spiralled.
But Johnson remained composed, moved with grace and assuredness, surveying shots until he felt ready, making smart decisions on shots (leaving the bunker shot on 17 intentionally short, for example) and swinging with freedom. His pre-shot routine was brisk. See the shot, hit the shot.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to be penalized,” he said. “So I just went about my business. Just focused on the drive at 12. From there on out, I just figured we’d deal with it when we got done.”
After everything he had endured—the nonsense with the ruling, grinding all day on those brutally tough Oakmont greens—he needed to close the deal with a 190-yard 6-iron. Just as he was settling in for the shot, an electronic noise erupted right behind him. He stepped away and looked annoyed. I think he spoke for everyone when he said, “Really?”
He went right back into his routine, took dead aim and flushed it tight and finished with a defining birdie.
As Paul Azinger noted earlier in the broadcast, Johnson faced an enormous mental test and that the only way to handle the situation was to “control the controllables.”
That’s what great players do. They focus on the task at hand. Johnson’s fellow competitors were all informed of the possible penalty during the round, but they said it didn’t affect them. “We were involved in what we were doing,” Scott Piercy said. We didn’t even ask what it was.”
But for Johnson to pull it off in a U.S. Open with his history of near misses was doubly impressive and a lesson in mental toughness.
And hell, it was nice to see the hard-luck hero finally come through. As Azinger also said, “It’s not what you do that really counts, it’s what you overcome.”