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US Open Redemption: Johnson Won’t Be Denied

The 116th U.S. Open was played for a record ninth time at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. Although Oakmont has no water hazards and has cut down over 500 trees during the last 15 years, it is considered by most to be the most difficult of all U.S. Open venues.

When Argentina’s Angel Cabrera won in 2007, besting Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk by a single stroke, only 8 players had rounds under par, for the entire week. 

Weather wreaked havoc on Thursday’s opening round when play was suspended on three different occasions for severe thunderstorms. Only a handful of players were able to complete their first rounds and some had not even teed off by the time play was called late in the day.

The leader after the second round was 31-year old American star, Dustin Johnson, who played almost flawless golf for the first two rounds to be at 4-under par. Johnson hit an otherworldly 25 consecutive greens in regulation for a sublime stretch of golf during his opening two rounds.

Johnson was one shot ahead of PGA Tour rookie, Andrew Landry, a 3-time All-American from the University of Arkansas, who would now experience the rarified air of being in the last pairing in Saturday’s third round.

Spain’s Sergio Garcia was at 2-under par and two shots behind Johnson tied with Ireland’s Shane Lowry, Frenchman Greg Bourdy and American Scott Piercy.

England’s Lee Westwood, at 43, facing the twilight of a career that has seen him be the #1 ranked player in the world and the winner of 42 events around the world was a further shot behind, in a cluster of players at 1-under. Westwood has had a remarkable 9 Top 3 finishes in Major Championships without winning which assuredly makes him the best player in history without one.

36-year old Garcia, whose bearded visage and agonized expressions belie his nickname, El Nino, has spent most of his career with the mantle of greatness within reach, only to always come up a little short (he has had 6 Top 3 finishes in Majors). Johnson has also narrowly missed out on claiming a Major, most recently at last year’s U.S. Open when a 3-putt from 15 feet on his last hole, led to an agonizing loss to Jordan Spieth.      

One had the feeling that this might be a redemptive U.S. Open for one of these players.

On his 8th hole during Saturday’s third round, 29-year old Lowry addressed an 8-foot putt for par. As he did so, he moved his ball so imperceptibly only he could see that he did so. Lowry immediately called over an official and explained what had happened, thereby incurring a one-stroke penalty for moving his ball at rest. Lowry then made his putt for a bogey-4 and birdied 2 of his next five holes to take a two-shot advantage with 4 holes still to be finished on Sunday morning.

Lowry birdied two of his closing 4 holes as he completed his third round in the early hours of Sunday to widen his lead to 4 over Johnson and Landry who were at 3-under par. Landry has played 11 events so far this year on the PGA Tour, making 5 cuts and having a career best finish of 41st, so his third round, 70 was impressive, to say the least.    

Westwood improved his position with a hard fought 1-under, 69, to be in a tie for third at 2-under, while Garcia fell back slightly with a 72 and even par for the Championship.     

But this was now Lowry’s Championship to win. The biggest win of the burly, affable 29-year old’s career to date was at the 2015 WGC Bridgestone Invitational,  but he has was a three-time winner on the European Tour before becoming a full-time player on the PGA Tour in 2016. Four shot leads at a U.S. Open, though, are accidents waiting to happen. 

By Sunday afternoon, however, the players would be facing a different Oakmont. The 4 inches of rain that had fallen between Tuesday and Thursday evenings and softened the greens for the first 3 days of the tournament had by now been absorbed and the terrifying speed of the surfaces by the Allegheny River had returned.   

Westwood and Landry’s quests would end early on Sunday as both unraveled with disastrous front-9’s.

Lowry was steady but still relinquished three shots to par to be 4-under as he made that turn. Johnson was repeatedly hitting massive drives that dissected the fairways but was failing to capitalize with indifferent wedge approach shots until a birdie on the 9th hole put him at 5-under and one ahead of Lowry.

And then controversy raised its ugly head. While getting ready to address his putt for par on the 5th green, Johnson took two practice strokes adjacent to his ball. As he began to address the putter behind the ball while the putter was still airborne his ball moved. Johnson immediately alerted his playing partner, Westwood and the accompanying Rules official. Westwood concurred that Johnson had not caused the ball to move and the referee deemed that there was no penalty. Johnson made his putt.

The USGA reviewed the television replay several times over the course of the next 90 minutes and determined that in their opinion Johnson had caused the ball to move and therefore should incur a 1-shot penalty. The officials then notified Johnson while he was playing the 12th hole that he may be assessed the penalty but it would not be officially decided until he finished his round.

In every conceivable way, this was an unjust decision. It was unfair to leave Johnson not knowing whether or not the ruling was definite and where he then stood. By definition, the ruling had been made on the 5th green. Ultimately the onus is on the player to act as judge and not only had Johnson correctly said that he did not cause the ball to move but so said his fellow competitor, Westwood and the Rules official with them.

Paired together, Piercy and Garcia both shot 2-under par 33’s on their front-9’s to be 2-under with 9 holes left.  

Johnson would reveal a mettle that had been born of so many previous disappointments. A 3-putt bogey on the 14th hole was followed by clutch par-saving putts on the 15th and 16th holes and an exclamation mark birdie on the 72nd to finish at 5-under par and a 4–shot triumph for the man from Myrtle Beach.

Garcia faded in the final 5 holes to be even par at the close and tied for 5th. Piercy and Jim Furyk, who closed with a 4-under par, 66 finished in second place with Lowry at 1-under but this was Johnson’s week.

The USGA did impose the 1-shot penalty so for the record it became a 3-shot margin of victory with the winning score, 4-under par, but in the end, those were schematics.         

A virtuoso shot-making performance by a player who had been a sometimes tragic performer on golf’s greatest stages.

This was a week of redemption.