Monday Scramble: Bad rules and Mr. Cool at Oakmont

RSS

Dustin Johnson gets his major, the USGA survives a self-inflicted black eye, Jason Day makes a late charge an more in this week's major edition of Monday Scramble:

The demons have been vanquished.

It wasn't exactly easy, and it certainly wasn't without a little controversy. But Dustin Johnson, perhaps the most physically gifted golfer of his generation, finally has his arms around a major championship trophy.

The U.S. Open began like so many majors have in recent years - with DJ bombing and gouging his way to the top of the standings. But this time, even though outside forces appeared to be conspiring against him down the stretch, he found a way to rise to the occasion.

A belted drive, followed by a laser iron and an emphatic birdie putt, Johnson closed out the proceedings at Oakmont in style, and in so doing erased the pain of a series of heartbreaks.

"For me to finally get it done on Sunday in a major," Johnson said, "it's a huge monkey off my back."

Pebble. Whistling Straits. Chambers Bay. They're all in the rear-view mirror now. The U.S. Open trophy is sitting right beside him, and that's all that matters.


1. Unfortunately for all parties involved - Johnson, the USGA and fans around the world - his tactical tee-to-green performance was overshadowed Sunday by a rules snafu that nearly took the tournament by storm.

Johnson's ball moved slightly on the fifth green, and replays showed it did so before he grounded the club behind the ball. While the walking rules official originally exonerated Johnson of any wrongdoing, tournament officials revisited him on the 12th tee. But the explanation there was simply to punt the final decision on a possible penalty until after the round, when video could be reviewed, leaving him in purgatory for the tournament's most crucial stretch.

What resulted was nothing short of a debacle, as players and fans were left to guess who was leading the tournament, and by how much. While the one-shot penalty was ultimately a moot point when it was finally (inevitably?) assessed, it hammered home the fact that the USGA mis-managed every aspect of the situation from the moment the official put his arm around Johnson's shoulder on the tee box.

Sure, it didn't decide the tournament like a questionable penalty did for Johnson at the 2010 PGA Championship. But that's a testament to Johnson's fortitude and resolve, and should in no way exonerate the USGA from their role in orchestrating a nearly-catastrophic chain of events on their biggest stage.

2. The USGA's situation certainly wasn't helped by the fact that several marquee players staged a social media mutiny. In a move that served as a sign of the times, players from the PGA Tour and beyond took to Twitter to voice their disagreement with the USGA's potential penalty, none more vehemently than Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Even Tiger Woods came out of hibernation to get in on the act, sending a congratulatory tweet to Johnson that referenced the "farce" surrounding the ruling.

As the USGA trotted out various representatives to explain the ruling, each time with limited success, the player-fueled rebellion served to highlight the tone-deaf nature of both the governing body's decision and the tactics with which they informed Johnson and the rest of the contenders of their plans.

Just as a referee should never determine the outcome of a team sporting event, so too the officials running tournaments should strive to remain silent adjudicators. Sunday's final round, uh, didn't play out that way.



3. Although Johnson has made his mark for years with eye-popping drives, it was always the putter that kept him from major glory, as it did last year at Chambers Bay. But Sunday, as the drives kept flying with regularity, it was Johnson's work on the greens that sealed the win.

While he was wobbly after hearing news of his maybe-possibly-we'll-see penalty, Johnson steadied himself with a clutch up-and-down from the bunker on No. 13. He followed with a 10-footer for par on No. 16, then curled in a putt on the 72nd hole that was barely longer than the one that missed a year ago outside Seattle.

It was always going to take a well-rounded performance for Johnson to get over the threshhold in a major way, and Sunday he authored just such an effort. Now, days shy of his 32nd birthday, it appears the floodgates could be on the verge of breaking.

4. While Johnson's win bucked his trend of close calls in majors, a pair of other marquee names saw their search for an elusive title endure.

It seemed, at least for a while, like it might be Lee Westwood's week. The Englishman holed out multiple shots from the fairway, and after a surprise runner-up at the Masters he played his way into the penultimate pairing Sunday alongside Johnson.

But Westwood made a hard-luck bogey on the second hole, and he never recovered. Out in 8-over 43, he didn't make a birdie until No. 17 and even that couldn't save him from a disastrous final-round 80. While he should be commended for the support he gave Johnson amidst the aforementioned rules fiasco, it was another opportunity gone by the wayside for Westwood, who still managed to keep his sense of humor afterwards:

Like Westwood, Sergio Garcia had a great chance to win only to see his title dreams vanish in a flurry of bogeys. Garcia was 3 under standing on the 14th tee, but a bogey there was followed by an unplayable lie in a bunker on No. 15 that ended his chances. He finished the week tied for fifth, and left Oakmont with a very Garcia-like quip after his 21st career top-10 in a major.

"I just got to keep putting myself in this situation and, you know, at some point in time, I'm sure that, you know, the coin will end up, will fall off on heads instead of tails," he said.



5. Johnson's theatrics distracted somewhat from the fact that Shane Lowry let the trophy slip away. After 54 holes of stellar play, including some early-morning birdies Sunday that stretched his lead to four shots, Lowry appeared out of sorts and frustrated for the entire final round.

The Irishman made only one birdie, and while Johnson handled the back-nine pressure it was Lowry who folded with three straight bogeys on Nos. 14-16.

In so doing, he became just the third player to cough up a 54-hole lead of at least four shots at the U.S. Open, and the first to do so since Payne Stewart in 1998. For the record, Stewart won the following year.

6. While the result was disappointing given where he started the final round, it was one that Lowry admitted he would have taken at the start of the week. It's also one that may muddy the waters when it comes to the Ryder Cup.

Lowry is set to defend his WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title in two weeks, a start for which he will earn no Ryder Cup points. Many European counterparts, including Rory McIlroy, will be at the Open de France that same week where double points are offered.

Lowry originally made the decision to head to Akron instead of Paris because he felt he was too far out of the Hazeltine mix to qualify or merit strong consideration for a pick. A surprise runner-up finish on a stern test at Oakmont likely changed those prospects considerably.

7. A way-too-early look at the potential automatic qualifiers for the Ryder Cup, which is now just 101 days away:

U.S.: Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson, Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler (plus four captain's picks)

Europe: Danny Willett, Rory McIlroy, Chris Wood, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Andy Sullivan (plus three captain's picks)



8. Back at Bay Hill, McIlroy was asked about chasing the career Grand Slam at the Masters, and which of the four legs might be the toughest to acquire.

“I’m just glad I’ve won a U.S. Open,” he said. “Put it that way.”

The comment evoked some laughs from the crowded media center, but it bears some truth: the further we get from McIlroy’s eight-shot romp at Congressional in 2011, the more it appears to be an outlier.

He hasn’t really contended since, outside of a backdoor top-10 last year at Chambers Bay. And this week at Oakmont he appeared rattled by the stop-and-start nature of Thursday’s opening round, turning what looked like a 73 or 74 into a costly 77.

His start to the second round was equally frustrating, showing just how high his ceiling is when it’s all clicking, only to be forfeited when he stumbled down the stretch.

McIlroy had plenty going for him this week – confidence in his swing, strong form and a recent win to build on. It resulted in his first missed cut at a major in nearly three years, and reinforced the notion that McIlroy’s second U.S. Open title could be a long time coming.


9. While he didn't win a second major title, Day certainly acquitted himself well at Oakmont in rallying from an opening 76 to post a T-8 finish.

The Aussie even seemed to have an outside chance at victory after a chip-in eagle on No. 12, though those chances were dashed a few holes later as he played ping-pong across the 17th green. On a week when McIlroy flamed out and Spieth failed to muster much of a title defense, Day was the lone bright spot among the world's top-ranked players and remains the most consistent player of 2016.

Talk in recent weeks and months has centered on the notion of a Big Three. While Johnson's win puts a rip in that fabric, as he supplants McIlroy at world No. 3, it's Day who continues to distance himself from the rest of the game's elite as his 10-month hot streak rolls right along.

10. When Phil Mickelson wraps up his illustrious career, the U.S. Open will still be the one that got away.

Mickelson has had three chances to complete the career Grand Slam, and his results have gotten progressively worse: T-28 at Pinehurst, T-64 at Chambers Bay, and a missed cut at Oakmont, where he also sat out the weekend in 2007.

Mickelson will turn 47 next year when the tournament shifts to a relative unknown in Erin Hills, and by the time he gets to familiar haunts in Shinnecock and Winged Foot, his PGA Tour Champions card will be within reach.

Could Mickelson turn back the clock with one more back-nine charge, challenge for the trophy that has most eluded him? Sure. But a win, at his age, would be nearly unprecedented in major championship golf.

More than likely, his last best chance to win a U.S. Open has already come and gone.



11. It’s time to sound the alarm about Fowler.

Fowler dispelled any notion of “overrated” during a banner 2015 campaign, then looked ready to add to his trophy collection early in the season. But a missed cut at the Masters was followed by early exits at both TPC Sawgrass and Oakmont, and all of a sudden Fowler has missed four of his last six cuts.

Even the lone bright spot, a T-4 finish at Quail Hollow, wasn’t entirely rosy considering he blew a 54-hole lead after a Sunday 74.

The biggest issue for Fowler is his inability to get out of the gates at majors. His opening-round score at the last six majors: 73, 81, 72, 73, 80, 76.

Fowler has the game to turn things around quickly, but make no mistake – he’ll be facing pressure to do so at Troon and Baltusrol.

 

 


As players young and old shared their two cents over the USGA's ruling on Johnson, John Daly entered the conversation in, well, a very John Daly sort of way. Bottoms up, JD.

This week's award winners ... 


'Frickin' Sweet': Those are the words Andrew Landry used to describe his Oakmont experience despite a difficult final round. Landry wasn't able to hold things together for 72 holes, but his spot in Sunday's final pairing - as one who advanced through both local and sectional qualifying - speaks to the uniquely democratic nature of this event.

Pay the man: In his final round as an amateur, top-ranked Jon Rahm shot a 72 that included six birdies to finish T-23 and take home low amateur honors. He'll start playing for pay this week at the Quicken Loans National, and don't be surprised if you see his name on a few PGA Tour leaderboards this summer.

More Protracer, please: This week's coverage was a reminder that there is no such thing as too much Protracer. Let's get it going for college football games, or at least hook it up to my cart for my weekly four-hour hack. Can't get enough of it.

Nothing to see here, move along, please: Mike Davis. The USGA's executive director has no problem being the face of the organization when it comes to course setup and various other aspects of its most high-profile event, but when a rules snafu put his organization under the microscope, he was conspicuously absent.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Hideki Matsuyama. One of the most consistent ball-strikers on Tour, facing a penal layout that rewards tee-to-green precision? Certainly didn't see 78-74 in the cards.