Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 19, 2016

DJ Beats The Field, The USGA, And His Major Demons

The USGA brought the U.S. Open to the Pittsburgh suburbs for a record ninth time this week. Bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Oakmont Country Club is consistently ranked among the top courses in the country and is generally regarded as the most demanding test among the courses chosen to host our national championship. Angel Cabrera was the final golfer standing in 2005, the last time the men’s Open was as Oakmont, with a score of 5-over par; the highest winning score in relation to par in more than forty years. The course has also hosted two Women’s U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships, and five U.S. Amateurs.

Given Oakmont’s difficulty as well as the natural tendency of pundits to state the obvious, much of the focus leading up to Thursday’s opening round was on the new Big Three of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. World number one Day came to the Open with seven wins in the past year, including his first major at least season’s PGA Championship and a four shot victory at the Players Championship last month. Spieth, the top-ranked American at number two, recovered from his Amen Corner disaster on Sunday at the Masters by winning the PGA Tour event in Fort Worth three weeks ago, where the Dallas native was cheered on as the local favorite. He was also the reigning U.S. Open champion after triumphing at Chambers Bay last June, one of two major titles claimed by Spieth in his magical 2015 season. With four major wins, third-ranked McIlroy’s resume outnumbers the other two combined, and much like Spieth he had just won in front of what amounted to a home crowd at the Irish Open.

In fairness to the pundits, there are few sports more difficult to predict than golf, where the fields are deep and results dependent as much on mental fortitude as physical ability. But the conventional wisdom ignored one important aspect of Oakmont’s history. For six of the eight previous winners of men’s U.S. Opens at Oakmont, the victory was their maiden major triumph. In another era, Tommy Armour won the first of his four majors at the 1927 Open, and Sam Parks Jr. won his sole major at Oakmont eight years later. On his way to setting the record with eighteen major wins, a 22-year old Jack Nicklaus claimed victory number one in an 18-hole playoff over Arnold Palmer in 1962. Eleven years later Nicklaus and Palmer were the favorites, but they could only watch as Johnny Miller set a championship record with a closing 63 to win his sole major by a single shot. While both would ultimately become multiple major winners, both Ernie Els in 1994 and Cabrera in 2007 scored their breakthrough at a Oakmont Open.

So perhaps it was no surprise that the ninth U.S. Open at the brutal Pennsylvania layout was not a battle between the Big Three. McIlroy opened with a 77, and stood on the 18th tee at the end of his second round right on the cut line. A double bogey promptly freed up his weekend. Spieth at least made the cut after opening with a pair of two-over 72s. But he stayed in place in the third round and faded on Sunday with a closing 75. Befitting his top ranking, Day managed to fight his way onto the first page of the leader board by Sunday afternoon. He was just one better than McIlroy after one round, but followed with scores of 69 and 66 to get back to 1-over for the tournament. He moved into red numbers and was within three of the lead midway through the back nine of the last round, but then went bunker to bunker around the 17th green and needed two swings to escape the second trap. Day’s eventual double bogey left the U.S. Open to a group of players chasing their first major title.

Of those whose hopes remained alive as the sun settled toward the horizon, none had a more star-crossed history in major tournaments than Dustin Johnson. He held the 54-hole lead at the 2010 U.S. Open, only to sky to a closing 82 at Pebble Beach. Two months later Johnson appeared to be part of a playoff at the PGA Championship, but was assessed a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the final hole. One year ago at Chambers Bay he stood over a twelve-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole that would have given him a one-stroke victory over Spieth. He missed both that and the three footer coming back that would have forced a playoff. A few weeks later he led the Open Championship at St. Andrews at the halfway point, but shot a pair of 75s on the weekend.

Sunday Johnson teed off three shots adrift of leader Shane Lowry. He hooked his drive into deep rough on the 10th, but suddenly it looked like fate would finally smile on him. Johnson’s line of sight to the green was blocked by a television tower, meaning he was entitled to a free drop. That put his ball on short grass and as he was making his drop Lowry was bogeying the 9th hole, putting Johnson into the lead.

Just two holes later USGA officials approached Johnson while he was waiting on the 12th tee. They informed the tournament leader that a ruling from the 5th green was going to be reviewed after the round. While preparing to putt on that earlier hole, Johnson had seen his ball move ever so slightly. He called for a rules official, and the decision was that since Johnson had not caused the ball to move, there was no penalty. Now he was left to play the remainder of his round uncertain as to whether that original call would stand, and perhaps to contemplate the often cruel nature of his chosen game.

Other players who had finished took to social media to decry the USGA’s handling of the situation, but in the end Johnson rendered the matter moot in the most emphatic way possible, by outplaying his pursuers over Oakmont’s closing holes. When he stood on the 18th tee Johnson led by three. He struck a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway, and then a perfect iron that settled four feet from the pin. When his birdie putt curled in the right side of the cup, Dustin Johnson became a major champion three days before his 32nd birthday. As the cheers rolled down from the grandstands Johnson hugged his 17-month old son Tatum and partner Paulina Gretzky. Surely even the golfing gods smiled.

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Responses

  1. Nice.


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