UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – As Jordan Spieth sat ready to hoist the U.S. Open trophy on the 18th green at Chambers Bay, and Louis Oosthuizen eagerly received his second-place medal, fellow runner-up Dustin Johnson was conspicuously absent.
Which is a shame, since he might have gotten some extra hardware for losing the tournament twice on the same afternoon.
Already one of the most decorated players on the PGA Tour, Johnson took an opportunity to erase years of heartbreak and instead turned it into one of the biggest 72nd-hole gut punches in major championship history.
Hey, Doug Sanders? Scott Hoch? It’s DJ on Line 1. Time to increase the membership list of golf’s most inconsolable fraternity.
Johnson knows all about losing majors in agonizing fashion, but this one was supposed to be different. Here he stood, on the 72nd hole with the tournament hanging on his clubface, poised and confident and ready to grab his first major trophy with both hands. The pain of years past, the near-misses that kept him from earning a spot among the game’s upper echelon, were all about to be washed away.
After two mighty lashes on the home hole, the target was within range. Just like at Whistling Straits, except this time there was nary a bunker to get in his way.
But minutes later, the scene still reverted back to 2010, as a stunned Johnson took off his cap, brushed aside his hair and wondered what in the world had just happened.
Another opportunity missed. Another chance wasted.
For much of the day, the stage appeared to be his. After relying on his drives all week, equal parts mammoth and accurate, Johnson coolly broke from a quartet of co-leaders, making the turn in 33 and building a two-shot lead.
Spieth had stalled, Jason Day was struggling and the path was clear for him to stride forward and accept the hardware that had eluded him.
Instead, his putter betrayed him – slowly at first, and then all at once when it mattered the most.
Johnson lost the U.S. Open for the first time on a four-hole stretch of Chambers Bay’s inward half, missing four straight putts from less than 7 feet. Three of those miscues led to bogeys, and an hour after holding the top spot Johnson was suddenly trailing by two.
“I didn’t make any putts today, I really didn’t,” Johnson said. “I had all the chances in the world.”
It was the putter, after all, that kept Johnson from turning this thing into a rout.
For four rounds, he murdered the ball off the tee and flip-wedged his way around a challenging track, only to fail to capitalize on chance after chance. That trend reared its head at the end of his second round, when he squandered a lead with three bogeys across his final five holes, and it popped up again down the stretch.
“If I rolled the putter halfway decent today,” Johnson surmised, “I win this thing by a few shots, it’s not even close.”
Johnson faltered as Spieth took command, and at that point the script appeared to be written in ink – here lies DJ, once again the victim of a slow bleed in the final round of the U.S. Open, just like his Pebble Beach implosion from five years ago.
But then Spieth made an uncharacteristic error, Johnson hit a great shot at the right time on the 71st hole, and the slate was somehow once again wiped clean.
After reaching the par-5 18th green with a 353-yard drive and an easy 5-iron, he was back on the doorstep of redemption. Thirteen feet were all that remained – 4 yards of fescue and poa and dirt to cleanse him from past sins.
“On the last green, just talking to my brother (caddie Austin Johnson), 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.”
As the gallery waited for its cue, Johnson’s eagle effort slid by the hole. Not ideal, but not a problem – only 4 feet stood between him and a Monday playoff with Spieth.
But seconds later, the crowd’s anticipated eruption turned into a hair-raising gasp. In the span of two quick misses and a tap-in par, it was all gone.
“Whatever that putt did on the last hole, I don’t know,” he said of his birdie attempt. “I might have pulled it a little bit, but still to me it looked like it bounced left. It’s tough. It’s difficult.”
“I very much feel for Dustin,” Spieth said. “He deserves to be holding the trophy as much as I do, I think, this week. It just came down to him being the last one to finish, and I was able to have one hole to rebound from my mistakes, and he wasn’t able to get that hole afterwards.”
Johnson turns 31 on Monday, a prime age for golfers. He has shown signs of change this year, of maturing from the player whose checkered past continues to haunt him. Now a father and again a winner on Tour after a six-month leave of absence, everything appeared in order this week for his signature win.
Instead, he was left to offer another series of half-hearted platitudes.
“Starting the week, all you want is to have a chance to win on the back nine on Sunday,” he said. “I did that. I put myself in position, I hit the shots I needed to hit. I just didn’t get it in the hole quick enough.”
As his seat at the trophy ceremony sat empty, Johnson was whisked away from the makeshift locker room at Chambers Bay, off to catch a flight with fiancée Paulina Gretzky and their son, Tatum, by his side.
“I did everything I could,” he said. “I gave myself looks, just wasn’t my time.”
With the creation of this latest layer of scar tissue, somehow more cruel and shocking than all of the others, it seems reasonable to wonder if his time will ever come.