Until Sunday, Johnson, 31, had nine PGA Tour victories and a place among a cadre of skilled but major-less golfers that includes Macdonald Smith and Harry Cooper, Bruce Crampton and Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. The last pair, whose droughts in the majors are more than twice as long as Johnson’s was, contended at Oakmont. Garcia was in the mix deep into the incoming nine on Sunday before three straight bogeys led to an even-par 70 and dropped him into a tie for fifth, while Westwood got off to a horrendous start and shot 80 to finish a dozen strokes behind Johnson, though he provided encouragement to Dustin in the penultimate pairing.
Oh-for-28 was over. An unrequited dream was traded for a new name engraved on a venerable trophy. Johnson’s brother/caddie, Austin, could congratulate Dustin instead of console him, and the winner also had his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, and their 18-month-old son, Tatum, greenside to greet him.
“I mean, yeah, obviously, I'm different,” said Johnson, who overcame some wayward teenage years growing up in South Carolina and more recent personal issues before producing the type of result observers have expected for nearly a decade. “Having a son and starting a family has definitely made me grow up a lot. But I felt like I've handled myself very well in the past in the majors. I just didn’t quite get over that hump. Today, I finally did.”
Those humps had included an old-fashioned collapse in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Johnson led by three through 54 holes but skied to an 82 in the final round, and an unusual situation two months later in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. He led by one shot on the last hole but didn’t realize he was in a bunker far right of the fairway and received a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club. The following summer, in the thick of The Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, Johnson hit a shot out of bounds on the par-5 14th hole during the final round. Then, a year ago, it came down to a 3-foot putt that Johnson missed on the final green at Chambers Bay to keep himself out of a playoff with Jordan Spieth.
For a naturally gifted golfer whose athleticism at 6-foot-4 typifies the taller, stronger type of player populating professional golf these days, who had proven himself repeatedly in regular events, Johnson seemed to be followed by a Charlie Brown cloud when winning mattered most.
At Oakmont, Johnson got a good break on the par-4 10th hole Sunday after hitting a wild hook over a ditch into thick rough close to the 11th fairway. He was deemed to have a camera tower and scoreboard in his line to the green and received relief from a temporary immovable obstruction. “The lie wasn’t terrible [but] it wasn’t good,” Johnson said. “For me to get to drop it in the first cut was definitely very nice.”
The bad karma came in the form of a Rules infraction that Johnson did not believe he committed when his ball moved slightly as he prepared to putt on the fifth green. Walking Rules official Mark Newell and Westwood agreed with Johnson when he told them he didn’t cause the ball to move. Later, though, when the Johnson-Westwood pairing reached the tee at the par-5 12th hole, Johnson was told by USGA Rules officials Jeff Hall and Thomas Pagel that upon looking at the incident on video, it was possible that he had violated Rule 18-2 by causing his ball to move and that a one-stroke penalty was possible after he completed the round.
“Certainly there’s a recognition of Oakmont’s [fast] greens. We recognize that,” Pagel explained later. “But a couple of other considerations you look at are the player’s actions and also the time that elapses between the player’s actions and the time that the ball moves. In Dustin’s case, he did ground his putter near the ball on two occasions, and it was shortly after he grounded his putter the second time that the ball moved. … It was more likely than not that Dustin was the cause of the movement. We understand that everyone is not going to agree with that. But the standard is not 100 percent, it’s more likely than not.”
With the potential one-stroke penalty looming, there was certainly the potential for his fragility under major pressure to reappear. But it did not.
“He handled the conversation on the 12th hole beautifully,” Hall said on the Fox broadcast. Stoic as stone, which is his way, and outwardly unbothered, Johnson smashed a drive far down the 12th and took one loping stride after another toward what he wanted so badly.
Johnson did receive a one-stroke penalty for causing his ball to move on No. 5. That gave him a final-round 69, a 4-under 276 total and a three-stroke victory over 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, Scott Piercy and Shane Lowry, the 29-year-old Irishman who went into the final 18 holes with a four-shot lead but struggled to a 76, 11 strokes higher than his third-round score. Like Garcia, Lowry got on a back-nine bogey train, missing par putts inside 6 feet on Nos. 14, 15 and 16.
“I’ve never felt as comfortable on a golf course in my life [as the third round],” Lowry said. “Whatever ‘in the zone’ is, I was there. I needed to play well today and it let me down at the end.”
Softened by rain from thunderstorms that disrupted Thursday’s action – spilling rounds into an extra day until everything was finally caught up Sunday morning with the completion of the third round – Oakmont gave up 51 sub-par scores, more than six times as many as nine years ago. Yet putts could still get away from a player like a bar of soap in a shower.
Furyk watched it happen to fellow-competitor Harris English, who shot 76 on Sunday. “He got himself in some positions on the fat side of the green, hitting shots where you think you’d want to,” Furyk said. “He had putts that I thought were pretty damn good, and he didn’t hit the first putt within 6 or 7 feet.”
Texan Andrew Landry, No. 624 in the Official World Golf Ranking and the surprise first-round leader with a 66, was tied for second after 54 holes. But he found out how cruel Oakmont’s greens could be when he four-putted the fifth hole Sunday to go 5 over for the round en route to a closing 78. Defending champion Jordan Spieth four-putted No. 6 to close any door on a dramatic final-round rally.
“Oakmont has a way to turn pars into bogeys and bogeys into doubles,” Furyk said.
That axiom seemed not to apply to Johnson, who played his first 27 holes without a bogey. He only made five bogeys over 72 holes, plus one double bogey in the third round, offsetting the mistakes with 11 birdies.
“Yeah, it definitely makes it sweet,” Johnson said of overcoming the one-stroke penalty while banishing his competitive demons. “It’s nothing new at this point. It's happened so many times. I kind of expect it now. So for it to not affect the outcome is fantastic. It just shows how well I played.”
Indeed he did. Whenever someone can be compared to one of Tiger Woods’ peak performances, it is not a bad thing. And since 1980, Johnson and Woods (2000, Pebble Beach Golf Links) are the only golfers to top the field in both driving distance and greens in regulation en route to a U.S. Open victory. The other Johnson, Zach, is still a lot better with his wedges than Dustin, but the power player has worked hard to improve.
One major-championship victory does not make a legend, of course, but in the construction of Dustin Johnson, golfer, what he accomplished on a rigorous old course whose members revere its difficulty is a sturdy foundation. The Steel City was a perfect place for Johnson to show what he’s made of, and on this major Sunday, it was as far from soft as Oakmont’s greens are to slow.
Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.