More Major Heartbreak for DJ
By Bill Fields
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Twelve feet from history turned into a short trip to more major-championship heartache for Dustin Johnson Sunday at Chambers Bay.
Instead of capturing the 115th U.S. Open by becoming the first player to eagle the 72nd hole to win the National Open, Johnson rolled his putt 4 feet past the hole on the 604-yard par 5.
A two-putt birdie would have earned Johnson a tie with Jordan Spieth at 5-under 275 and a spot in an 18-hole playoff on Monday. But he burned the left edge with the 4-foot comebacker, settling for a final-round 70 and a tie for second place with Louis Oosthuizen.
“On the last green, just talking to my brother [and caddie, Austin], this is exactly why I'm here,” Johnson said. “This is why I play the game of golf. I've got a chance to win the U.S. Open on the last hole. I mean, I was trying, just didn't work out.”
It wasn’t the first time Johnson had seen a major title slip through his hands, although arguably the most painful.
There was the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he held a three-stroke lead after 54 holes before limping home in 82 to tie for eighth.
Two months later in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Johnson birdied the 16th and 17th holes to take a one-stroke lead to the final hole. After fading his tee shot well right on a hillside, Johnson made a bogey that appeared to tie him with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer for a three-way playoff. As it turned out, he grounded his club in one of the course’s many bunkers before hitting his second shot, and the two-stroke penalty dropped him into a tie for fifth.
During the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George’s, Johnson squandered early birdie opportunities in the final round and was in a taut final-round battle with Darren Clarke on the par-5 14th hole. Johnson hit his second shot out of bounds to the right with a 2-iron, the double bogey doubling his deficit from two to four strokes and clearing the way for Clarke.
The late writer George Plimpton once observed that golf “requires a certain cold toughness of mind and absorption of will.” Through eight holes of Sunday’s closing round at Chambers Bay, Johnson was displaying those traits and seemed ready to break through to win his first major.
He missed a 5-footer for birdie on No. 3 but rebounded with a birdie on the next hole. At No. 6, he made a great par save with a 25-footer. After a birdie on the eighth, he led by two shots. When he made par on No. 9, he went to the inward nine still leading Spieth and Branden Grace by two.
Within an hour, though, Johnson was on the ropes and out of the lead. After bogeys on Nos. 10, 11 and 13, he trailed Spieth and Grace by two. He held his ground over the next three holes with pars. Then, the golfer who is capable of the spectacular reappeared, striking a 6-iron to 6 feet on the par-3 17th and making the birdie putt.
The momentum carried over to the 18th tee, where he bombed a drive down the middle of the fairway that left him 247 yards to the green. He followed with a gorgeous 5-iron that landed on the green and rolled past the hole to the back-left portion of the green. Johnson was in control of his fate, and it appeared as if he would at least force an extra round with Spieth, who had ended his own up-and-down round with a birdie on the home hole.
Appearances were deceiving. Johnson’s downhill eagle putt went by the hole, leaving far more of a cleanup than was comfortable.
Johnson’s putt with so much riding on it missed to the left. “I might have pulled it a little,” he said. “But still to me it looked like it bounced left. It’s tough. It’s very difficult.”
For all the attention long putts made under pressure receive, short putts missed under pressure resonate, too. Whether it was Sam Snead, Doug Sanders or Scott Hoch , the tiny failures linger as testaments to how cruel golf can be.
“I’m disappointed that I three-putted the last hole,” Johnson said. “Other than that, I had a damn good week. I'm happy with the way I played. I'm happy with everything in my game right now. I had a chance to win a major on a Sunday. I thought I handled myself very well. I hit the shots when I needed to. So, I know what it takes to get it done, it's real simple: I need to get in the hole faster.”
Davis Love III three-putted the 72nd hole at Oakland Hills to lose the 1996 U.S. Open, missing a putt a bit shorter than the one Johnson missed Sunday. People had been saying for years that Love, strong and gifted like Johnson is now, was due for a major. The following summer, with a rainbow backdrop, Love got that major title in the PGA Championship at Winged Foot.
Learning how to win your first major can be a continuing education. The golfer who beat Johnson at Royal St. George’s, Clarke, needed 54 tries. For six-time U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson, it took 47. Nick Price required 37 attempts. It even took Ben Hogan 18 efforts to unlock the secret.
This was Johnson’s 25th major. He turns 31 Monday. He has time. He has a young son, Tatum, who was in his arms not long after his ball stayed out of the hole. “My trophy at the end of the day is holding up my little man,” Johnson said. “No matter what, I’m going to keep my head high and I’m going to be happy.”
When Johnson lost the 2011 British Open, a man who went through his own disappointments before winning his first major, and seven more after that, put the challenge this way: “Just do it better next time,” said Tom Watson.
For Johnson, it is that easy. And that hard.
Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.