There’s a title in golf that no tour pro wants. On the surface, it doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it means you’re one of the very best players alive. That title, if you haven’t guessed:
The Best Player to Never Win a Major.
Many greats have held that title. It’s certainly one that can be transcended. Phil Mickelson bore the burden longer than just about anyone, and he’d shed the label before he’d made the very short trip down from the apex of his 2004 Masters victory leap.
There are, of course, sadder ways to lose the crown. For a long time, Lee Westwood was that player. He had a few close calls in a variety of majors, and was even the man to replace Tiger Woods as the No. 1 golfer in the world after Tiger’s record 281-week reign. Westwood himself has spent 22 weeks total at No. 1. He’s no longer The Best Player to Never Win a Major, but not because he fixed the last part. Instead, he’s just not as good.
He still contends in majors; he finished T2 at the Masters. Sunday, Westwood teed off tied for fourth, in the second-to-last pairing, five shots off the lead and certainly in the thick of things. And then he did what he always seems to do on Sundays at majors: He collapsed, recording a bogey or worse on six of his first seven holes en route to an 80.
At 43, his chances to conquer whatever personal roadblocks he’s thrown up for himself on the biggest stages are dwindling. He hasn’t been The Best Player to Never Win a Major for some time now, but he is still a good guy, which will play into the story later.
But if not Westwood, who now holds the title? Until Sunday, the man with the best case was Lee’s playing partner.
Dustin Johnson has been tortured in majors in every way imaginable. There was the 2-iron he pushed out of bounds at the 2011 British Open, knocking him out of contention late on Sunday. At Pebble Beach in 2010, he teed off Sunday with a three-shot lead, squandering it almost immediately with a triple bogey on the second hole. He then doubled hole #3 and sank from there, finishing with a final round 82. On the 72nd green of the 2015 U.S. Open, having hit a fantastic approach to reach the par 5 in two, he had one putt to win, another to force a playoff with Jordan Spieth. He brutally three-putted.
But the worst, the most painful of all the times he faltered late, had to be the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Because that time, it wasn’t an errant swing, a flubbed chip, or a lipped putt. No, that time the rules of the game took him down through only a little fault of his own. Playing the 18th on Sunday with a one-shot lead, needing only a par to win his first major, he found himself in an area trampled by the gallery. Not realizing it was a bunker, he grounded his club, a two-shot penalty. Johnson then bogeyed the hole, meaning he would have been in the playoff (eventually won by Bubba Watson) had he realized the situation.
Now, it’s certainly fair to say that Johnson should have been more aware of his lie, and his surroundings, and the local rule that had been in place that day. But it was still unfortunate, the first in a series of events that threatened to pile up and prevent Dustin from winning, to grind him down and leave him jumping at shadows on Sundays for years to come.
That would have been a terrible shame, because, my goodness, can Dustin Johnson strike a golf ball. He demonstrated that time and again this weekend. Every time Fox’s graphics tracked a monster drive or majestic approach, it was as though a master painter was carving the air with a brushstroke. (That sounds perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but if you consider the golfer’s ability to shape and work the flight of the ball a form of athletic artistry, Dustin Johnson does things no other artist in his field can do, or has ever done.)
"U.S. Performs Successful Missile Launch" pic.twitter.com/K9yJQdyuYC
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) June 17, 2016
He started the round four shots behind leader Shane Lowry, and after an early birdie for Johnson and a corresponding bogey for Lowry, the lead was halved. Johnson was striking the ball well, finding fairways and giving himself green-light wedges, but he wasn’t quite dialed in on those approaches. Was this a case of Sunday nerves? Would he once again tighten up, his own swing betraying him?
He stood over a short-but-tough par putt on the fifth green. Oakmont’s greens, as with all U.S. Open greens, were essentially glass. Super-slick green surfaces are now common fare for the course setup favored by the USGA, which has a goal of keeping scores as close to par as possible. They bill the national championship as “The Toughest Test in Golf,” which while enjoyable to a degree, can easily veer into the absurd.
Johnson stood over the ball, rehearsing his putting stroke. Once. Twice. He then lifts the putter and moves to rest it behind his ball for his actual attempt, but before can do so, the ball moves. Take a look:
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 19, 2016
Immediately, Johnson backed off and looked to Westwood, his playing partner, saying that the ball moved. He called in the rules official that was with the group, who discussed it with both men. As Johnson had not addressed the ball, nor in his belief caused it to move, the official ruled that there was no penalty, the ball would be replaced and played. Johnson went on to knock in the par putt.
It’s important to realize just how silly a rule this can be. Especially when dealing with greens this fast, it’s entirely possible for the ball to move while being addressed, through no fault of the player. Golf wasn’t necessarily meant to be played on greens like this. The USGA pushes the agrarian limits of these properties in an effort to make things tough, but the rules weren’t written with situations like this in mind. Johnson gained no advantage by his movements, but a one-stroke penalty, had it been given, would have been a major turning point.
Fortunately for Dustin, this was not to be one of his weird Sunday occurrences. Except, all of a sudden, it was.
As Johnson played the 12th hole, another USGA official informed him that he actually might be penalized a stroke for what had happened back on the 5th green. Think about the absurdity of that. He might be penalized a stroke? That’s probably the worst news he could have received. Were he to at least have known for sure he’d be penalized, he could have adjusted his play down the stretch, been more aggressive if need be. And that went for everyone in the field. By not informing Johnson definitively, no one in the field knew exactly how big Johnson’s lead was.
The scoreboard showed two shots, at that point, over a group including Sergio Garcia (another Best Player to Never Win a Major), Scott Piercy, and the overnight leader Shane Lowry, who had dropped four shots and would continue to drop more.
Often the greatest sign of absurdity is unanimity in opposition. And based on social media reaction, the USGA’s actions were absurd to the extreme.
This is ridiculous… No penalty whatsoever for DJ. Let the guy play without this crap in his head. Amateur hour from @USGA
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) June 19, 2016
This isn't right for anyone on that golf course. If it was me I wouldn't hit another shot until this farce was rectified.
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) June 19, 2016
It's obviously affecting Shane too https://t.co/KZyyka32Fh
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) June 19, 2016
Jack Nicklaus calls USGA decision to tell Dustin Johnson at 12 of possible penalty "terrible" & "very unfair."
— Ian O'Connor (@Ian_OConnor) June 20, 2016
Lemme get this straight.. DJ doesn't address it. It's ruled that he didn't cause it to move. Now you tell him he may have? Now? This a joke?
— Jordan Spieth (@JordanSpieth) June 19, 2016
"Hey DJ, I know you have more demons to battle on these 7 holes than I can imagine but even if you win we may just take it away at the end."
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) June 19, 2016
— Rickie Fowler (@RickieFowler) June 19, 2016
— Webb Simpson (@webbsimpson1) June 19, 2016
— Luke Donald (@LukeDonald) June 19, 2016
It went on from there. But the weird thing about golf, even at the highest level, is that sometimes competitors go out of their way to support each other. Look at those tweets from his fellow pros. None of them had to do this, they had nothing to gain. But they all recognized a farce when they saw it.
“Westwood, who was in contention until a rough outing Sunday, remained heated and clearly tried to pave the way to major No. 1 for Johnson even as Westwood himself was in the middle of shooting a final-round 80.
“‘Lee is a classy guy,”‘Dustin’s brother and caddie, Austin, told me later. He noted that Westwood was steadfast in insisting that Johnson had done nothing wrong. A scoring official later told me that Westwood demanded to be shown the video that Johnson was shown in the scorer’s tent after the round.
‘”I gained a lot of respect for Westwood today,” said the scorer.”
That’s fantastic. Westwood realized the situation, understood what Johnson was going through on what must have been a deeply personal level, and went out of his way to support a competitor because he felt it was the right thing to do. He deserves all the respect in the world.
Johnson did falter a bit, moving into a tie with Lowry on the leaderboard for a portion of the back nine. But as the round went on, the other players fell back. Lowry bogeyed 13, 14, and 15, while Dustin held at -4, converting tricky par saves on both 16 and 17.
As Johnson played the 18th, he had either a two-shot or three-shot lead, depending on what the USGA was going to rule after his round. (Think about how silly that sounds, but it’s what played out.)
The finishing hole at Oakmont is punishing, a 489-yard par 4, that had yielded only one birdie on Sunday. Johnson stepped to the tee and carved a beautiful fade right down the middle, leaving himself 190-yards. He had to have been playing as though he possessed a mere two-shot lead, for safety; plus, Lowry still had two holes to finish. A bogey could have been disastrous.
He addressed the ball, and began to draw the club back. Unbelievably, or perhaps inevitably, considering what else had transpired, a strange electronic noise went off from behind Johnson; perhaps a camera malfunction? He paused mid-swing, stepping away, and turning back to the cameras said what everyone was thinking:
He went through his routine again, took aim, and swung. The result:
One final work of art for Dustin. He’d make the putt for birdie to get to -5, only for the USGA to inform him that he was facing a penalty after all. It ended up not mattering, as the second-place group was at -1, but if that stroke was to win, he would have had plenty of reason to protest. As it was, he likely accepted it and went to collect his deserved trophy.
And that’s how Dustin Johnson shed the title of Best Player to Never Win a Major. It belongs to someone else now, who must overcome the same sort of obstacles that Johnson had to, and that Westwood tried to before him. It’s a title you only get by being great. That’s what’s important to remember.
Yesterday, Dustin Johnson was great. So was Lee Westwood. Though he shot 80, his character demonstrated far more greatness than a red number would have shown. The USGA was incredibly lucky that Johnson kept it together, but their decision-making still had a negative impact on him, the field, and everyone involved. Hopefully, things change as a result. But, that’s not what matters most.
Dustin Johnson got the win he deserved.
Good for him.