OAKMONT, Pa. — Dustin Johnson walked into the clubhouse at Oakmont Country Club, beaming as he held his son, Tatum, and walked alongside his partner, Paulina Gretzky.
The new U.S. Open champion handed off his son to Paulina, and Tatum whined, wanting to spend more time with his dad. Tatum had no concept of what Dad had finally done.
Paulina walked over to Dustin’s brother and caddie, Austin, and put her arms around him. They’d been through a lot together, on and off the course. This was the payoff.
Sergio Garcia soon walked in behind Johnson, offering hugs and handshakes to Austin and Paulina. He offered his congratulations to one of his now-former fellow snakebitten golfers.
“I was very happy for him. I told him,” Garcia said as he was making his way out of the clubhouse. “He’s been playing well for so long now. He probably should have had one or two of these already. He deserved this.”
This is what happens to someone when they win their first major. It doesn’t matter the margin.
However, on this Sunday, it almost did.
On the fifth green, Johnson was preparing to hit a par putt of about 4 feet. Already miffed at missing a shorter downhill birdie putt on the other side of the hole, Johnson backed off when he put his putter in the air behind the ball, which then moved slightly. He called over a USGA rules official to explain the situation. Under the Rules of Golf, Johnson couldn’t be penalized under Rule 18-2 if it was deemed that he didn’t cause the ball to move. The 31-year-old didn’t think he had. Seemingly, the rules official agreed with Johnson.
Case closed, right? No.
Seven holes later, on the 12th tee, a USGA official came up to Johnson to apprise him that they were still reviewing the incident. A final decision on the penalty would be made after Johnson finished. The remainder of the field was also notified of the potential penalty.
Are you kidding? While we’re young, USGA.
With the dangling knife of a one-stroke penalty hanging over Johnson, he flailed for several holes, dropping a shot on the par-4 14th. However, as he made pars, he continued to move up the leaderboard. The putting magic that got Shane Lowry into the pole position and a four-shot lead with 18 to play wore off, with the Irishman making three consecutive bogeys from Nos. 14-16. Sergio Garcia’s ball buried near the lip of a bunker, the back end of back-to-back dropped shots. Scott Piercy, who no one seemed to notice had a chance to win with three holes to play, threw up the title with a 2-over finale.
After a par 4 on the drivable 17th hole, Johnson stood on the final tee with a two-stroke lead. Make par, and it didn’t matter what the blue jackets said in the scoring trailer; the trophy would be his.
The 485-yard finisher was Johnson’s finest hour. He mashed a drive into the middle of the fairway, avoiding the trouble like Angel Cabrera did nine years ago, daring Oakmont to stop him. Then, with his 6-iron approach, Johnson finally seized what was his. He stuck his approach to 3 feet, rousing cheers from the grandstands. They chanted “D! J!” as he walked up to the green. He didn’t need the birdie putt, but Johnson left nothing to chance and holed it.
Johnson had signed for his score and made his way into the Oakmont locker room. He washed his face. Paulina stepped in the doorway, looking both ways apprehensively. She wanted to look at a mirror quickly. For the closest thing golf has to a true Hollywood couple, they wanted to both look as good as Johnson played on Sunday.
In the trophy presentation, Fox Sports anchor Joe Buck asked Johnson about the looming penalty. The fans booed loudly, as though he were asking about the Ravens, Browns or Bengals. He’d been through way more in his life: a tough upbringing, some trouble in his teenage years, a break from the game to get his act together. He’d dealt with worse in majors: Bunkergate at Whistling Straits, the 2-iron out of bounds at the 2011 Open Championship, the three-putt from 12 feet 12 months ago at Chambers Bay. After everything that has happened to him and he did to himself, he wasn’t going to let something that might happen derail his best chance at a major breakthrough.
In the end, Johnson shot 2-under 68 on Sunday in a U.S. Open at Oakmont. The official record will show it was 69.
Dustin Johnson is a U.S. Open champion. It doesn’t matter the margin.