On the afternoon of Sunday, June 19, 2016, David Winkle was simply looking for a quiet place to watch the final round of the U.S. Open.
The agent for Irmo native Dustin Johnson, a perennial bridesmaid at golf’s majors – including a heartbreaking runner-up finish the previous June at Chambers Bay near Seattle – had arrived at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh at 5:30 a.m., as Johnson and others in the 116th Open field returned to complete Saturday’s weather-delayed third round. Now, some 11 hours later, Winkle wanted a peaceful vantage point to watch as Johnson, having started the final round four shots behind leader Shane Lowry, was closing in on the lead.
“I’d walked the first hole with (Johnson), but with those crowds, I went back to the clubhouse to watch,” Winkle said. He found an empty meeting room with a big-screen TV in the clubhouse’s second-floor locker room and settled in.
Also watching on TV from the media area was Sports Illustrated writer Alan Shipnuck, assigned to write about the day’s winner. He, too, had walked a couple of holes with Johnson. Ron Green Jr., a former Charlotte Observer writer now working for the website Global Golf Post, strolled the front nine with the leaders, listening to radio coverage on an earpiece. Others – Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle, Golfweek’s Jeff Babineau – followed the action, while back in Columbia, Art Whisnant, Johnson’s grandfather, watched on TV.
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At roughly 4:41 p.m., Johnson – by now within two shots of a faltering Lowry – missed a three-foot birdie putt at the fifth green. Johnson, “DJ” to his fans, prepared to tap in his par, but backed away and summoned an official, telling him the ball had moved. Johnson, playing partner Lee Westwood and the official all agreed he had not caused the movement, and he re-marked and sank the putt.
Then, over the next few hours, all hell broke loose.
While the round continued, USGA officials were studying video of Johnson’s ball at No. 5. Had he caused the movement after all? Executive director Mike Davis, among others, viewed the video, but no one seemed ready to make the call.
Word of a possible penalty was spreading – via USGA walkie-talkies, and then on Fox-TV’s national broadcast. “When they first addressed it, my phone started blowing up,” Winkle said. “Everyone was going crazy at what was taking place. All had strong opinions … and everyone was upset with what was going on.”
Especially Whisnant, who despite a balky right knee (he had it replaced in April) was pacing furiously. “I said, ‘That’s not a penalty, he didn’t do anything,’ ” Whisnant, 76, a former basketball All-American at South Carolina, said last week.
While others wondered, fumed and fretted, it was hours later, when he reached the 12th green, before Johnson was told by USGA officials that he might be penalized … or he might not. A decision would await conclusion of play, when the player could view the video.
A year removed from his eventual three-shot victory for his first major title, and this week preparing to defend that crown at Wisconsin’s Erin Hills, Johnson almost audibly shrugs when asked, for perhaps the zillionth time, to reflect on how he played those final six holes under a cloud of doubt.
“I don’t even know,” he said, two weeks after the Open. “Fortunately, it didn’t matter because I won by four, and I guess now I won by three” after the post-round penalty stroke was added to his 4-under par 68.
“I still don’t believe I did anything to make the golf ball move. But at that point, I was ready to sign my scorecard and get my trophy. I think I just said, give me the penalty (and) let’s go.”
Such pragmatism is typical of Johnson, for whom the adjective “laconic” seems to have been invented. After all, given his past history of near-misses in majors – the blown 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, his three-putt final hole at Chambers Bay in 2015 and, most notably, the two-shot penalty at the 2010 PGA Championship for grounding his club in a final-hole “bunker” – holding that trophy was what mattered most.
A year later, Johnson’s breakthrough at Oakmont continues to roll on. He has won three times since, rising to No. 1 in the world, and is the solid favorite this week at Erin Hills, a course seemingly designed to fit his strengths. But other things mattered, too, besides the bottom line, and still do.
Indeed, after finally realizing his long-awaited goal, Johnson not only carved out an entry in the U.S. Open record book a year ago. He now has his own place in the USGA’s rules book, too.
Wins sometimes fall to you, and sometimes you have to go get it. He went out and grabbed it, on a beast of a course. No argument, he’s the best in the world ...
Ron Green, Jr., golf writer
Keeping it simple
When looking back at that Sunday at Oakmont, a handful of veteran golf reporters conclude that Johnson, both with his clutch play and his ability to tune out a possible disastrous distraction, clearly has established himself as the game’s best, perhaps the most dominant player since Tiger Woods’ heyday.
“Early on Sunday, you had this overwhelming sense of, ‘It had to be Dustin, all caught up in a weird, crazy story,’ ” Shipnuck said of Johnson’s previous majors history. “But that day, he kept hitting shots, kept playing, and it became obvious: he was the only one who could survive this. Other players had so many thoughts in their heads” – notably Lowry, who collapsed with a closing 76 – “but DJ has this zen-like simplicity: hit a shot, then hit another.
“In hindsight, he was the right guy to deal with this. He keeps it so simple.”
In a profile he wrote weeks later for SI, Shipnuck spent time with Johnson, caddie-brother Austin Johnson, fiancée Paulina and her famous father, hockey great Wayne Gretzky. The writer came away with a newfound appreciation for how far Johnson has come as a professional the past several years.
“His level of commitment in every part of his life, from his diet to his training regimen to his commitment to his new family – it’s just doing the right thing,” Shipnuck said. “It takes all of us time to grow up, and maybe it took him longer than most. But talking to Wayne about things they discuss, witnessing firsthand his breakthrough season … and he’s still not satisfied, he wants to go to a whole other level.”
That was on display that Open Sunday, as Johnson stayed rock-solid while his pursuers fell away, making easy and hard pars to maintain his lead. At the 18th hole, he put an exclamation point on his performance, crushing a drive and then hitting a 5-iron – “that might be one of the best shots I ever hit,” he said afterward – to set up a satisfying birdie finish.
“Wins sometimes fall to you, and sometimes you have to go get it,” Green Jr. said. “He went out and grabbed it, on a beast of a course. No argument, he’s the best in the world, and since that day, he’s been a different player. He worked on his weaknesses (notably wedge play), dialed in his control; he is an impressive golf machine when he’s all dialed in.”
Johnson had to be dialed in that day, especially after the 12th hole, since, as Green and others said, he had every excuse to be distracted.
The USGA – and its rules book that had gotten out of control – saw to that.
When it became apparent there was a question about the fifth hole, Shipnuck went looking for officials to get the true story. “There was a lot of confusion about what was happening,” he said. Shipnuck tracked down USGA executive director Mike Davis, who he found wrapped in a towel as he exited a shower in the clubhouse.
“The lack of communication and collaboration …” Shipnuck said, trailing off. “(Davis) is standing there, tying his tie, and he hasn’t talked to the key participants.” Davis said the USGA would talk to Johnson after his round, to which Shipnuck replied, “Why don’t you take an iPad out there to show (the fifth hole) to him now?” Davis’ response: “We don’t have an iPad.”
Needless to say, the USGA’s leaving Johnson in doubt for those six holes infuriated both fans and media members, many of whom already regarded the governing body as – to paraphrase several other players, who were tweeting about the situation – “amateur hour.”
“When I saw the video replay, I said, ‘No way that’s a penalty,’” SI’s Van Sickle said. “I mean, the head of the tournament committee (Mark Newell) is the walking official. It’s like (the USGA) spent all that time figuring out how not to embarrass him.”
As it turned out, much of the confusion stemmed from a recently enacted rule governing ball movement. Where once a player could avoid a penalty by not grounding his club/putter behind the ball (Johnson never grounded his putter behind the ball at No. 5), the interpretation of a player “more likely than not” causing ball movement created a guilty-until-proven-innocent scenario.
“I think this had been building up like a bonfire, with more logs thrown on,” Golfweek’s Babineau said. “You also would have another controversy at the Women’s Open (where a high-speed camera showed Anna Nordqvist touching sand in the backswing of a shot from a fairway bunker).” Too, Babineau said, the USGA “gets in their own way sometimes. They push (Open) courses to the limits, the greens are like glass, it’s right to the edge or over the edge” of playability.
Yet for all the furor, those who followed Johnson’s finish – “like a race horse with blinders on,” Green said – came away not only impressed with his play, but his unflappable focus. Had he lost his lead down the stretch, falling into a tie (which would’ve become a loss with the penalty) – or, even in winning, chosen to excoriate the USGA for its ham-handed handling of the situation … as Johnson himself said, succinctly, “That would’ve been bad.”
Bad? “I think it would’ve been awful for golf, and a sad moment for Dustin,” Winkle, the agent, said. “They mishandled it, absolutely; the USGA admitted that. The Open is their crown jewel, and they don’t want a shadow over that. I think Dustin would’ve overcome it, though.”
But the USGA? “The big fear is, if it had caused him to start playing bad, or if it causes him to lose the Open … no matter how that turns out, it may have ruined the Open,” SI’s Van Sickle said.
Shipnuck agreed, but more strongly. “The USGA never would’ve recovered. It’d be the death of the USGA as we know it,” he said. “They would’ve lost all credibility. Dustin saved the USGA by playing so great down the stretch.”
That, and the aftermath, was typical Johnson, Babineau said. “He bailed them out, gave a big ol’ DJ shrug of his shoulders,” he said. “We in the media kept hammering away about it – he could’ve thrown the USGA under the bus, because they put him through a lot those last six holes – but at the end he said, about half in jest, ‘It just doesn’t matter.’ ”
But it did, for the short and long term. Just more than six months later, it mattered again.
‘Dustin Johnson Rule’
At the end of 2016, the USGA and Royal & Ancient, the two world golf rules-makers, announced proposals for a number of changes to be reviewed and then go into effect in 2019. Among them: a new rule that if a ball moves and the cause is not clearly the player, the ball is replaced in its original location, without penalty.
Common sense, Babineau said.
“It’s simplifying things, which is what golf wants and needs,” he said. “It was going to be somebody (victimized by a ruling, which resulted in a change), but it’s interesting that it’s Dustin. How many times has he been in the middle of a flap and came up on the wrong side?”
Green agreed the time to change the rule had come, that Johnson was in the right place at the right time and was the right guy. “It’s happened to others,” Green said, mentioning 2012 Open champion Webb Simpson as one notable example. “I think what happened to Dustin expedited the change, though.
“It’s a rule that didn’t seem quite fair, and this felt like a harsh ruling applied at the harshest time, in the harshest way. If (the USGA) wasn’t considering the change before, they had to consider it afterward.”
Shipnuck had another rules “proposal” to add, he said.
“It should be known as the ‘Dustin Johnson Rule,’ one million percent,” he said. “There are plenty of players who’ve been stung by that rule in the past, but Dustin is the agent of change. He deserves to be known as the guy who made them change it.”
Something else changed that Sunday, too. Johnson – viewed as something of a tragic figure after Pebble Beach, Chambers Bay and especially Whistling Straits – is suddenly the favorite. Not just to win this Open and more majors in the future, but also a fan favorite who overcame adversity and won anyway.
Green got a look at that world as Johnson strode up the 18th fairway on Sunday. “You heard fans chanting ‘D.J.! D.J.!’ It was almost like ‘No justice, no peace,’ ” he said. “People like Dustin. He’s changed what people see when they look at him.
“To be so laid back, (Johnson’s swing coach) Butch (Harmon) says Dustin has more of a killer instinct than we know. He says it’s like the Wild West days: the new fastest gun is waiting to take him on; Dustin strolls out of the saloon, sees him, whips out his gun, shoots the kid … and then walks back into the bar.”
Johnson’s grandfather – who makes no bones about what he wants to see next (“win the Masters”) – says that’s always been the Dustin he knows. “I’ve never seen him get mad, throw a club,” Whisnant said. “He just goes on, does what he needs to do, and whatever will be, will be.”
Having passed, perhaps, the ultimate test of that approach, Johnson acknowledges the doing so has surpassed the thinking so. Is he No. 1 in the world? Truth be told, he’s always thought that could be.
“Now I know I’ve got (major-winning ability), for sure,” he said. “I believed I had what it takes to get it done, but there’s always that thing in the back of your head, telling you, do you really have what it takes?”
He paused. “Now, I know.”