Finally, DJ shakes the monkey off his back

By Ryan LavnerJune 20, 2016, 4:08 am

OAKMONT, Pa. – Of the many ways Dustin Johnson has lost a major championship – poor decisions, untimely swings, rotten luck, even head-scratching negligence – this U.S. Open had the potential to be the most soul-crushing.

Yes, there was the self-immolation at Pebble Beach.

And the inadvertent grounding of his club in a Whistling Straits bunker.

And the shank out of bounds at Royal St. George’s.

And the three-putt on the bumpy 18th green at Chambers Bay.

But for golf’s most gifted and cursed star, none of those blunders compared with what transpired Sunday at Oakmont during one of the most bizarre final rounds in major-championship history.

After all of Johnson's stumbles, now there was a disputed ruling that left players wondering where they stood on the back nine of a major?

“Just one more thing to add to the list, right?” he said with a smile late Sunday. “It’s nothing new at this point. It’s happened so many times, I’ve kind of come to expect it now.”

Yet this time, the outcome was different. This time, a four-shot deficit, an on-the-edge setup and a controversial decision by the USGA didn’t stop Johnson in his ill-fated pursuit of that elusive major. This time, the very attribute for which he is most often criticized – a lack of mental fortitude – was the reason why he closed out this 116th U.S. Open amid the most unusual circumstances.

“To finally get it done on Sunday in a major, it’s a huge monkey off my back,” he said. “I’ve put myself in this position many times, and to get it done is definitely sweet.”

After the recent near misses, and after the rules snafu Sunday, it’s hard to imagine a more popular or satisfying major winner than Johnson.

The initial confusion began on the fifth green, where Johnson lined up a 5-foot par putt. He made a few small practice strokes next to his ball, lifted his putter, and noticed that his ball moved slightly. He called over the USGA rules official to discuss the situation, and he, fellow playing competitor Lee Westwood and the official all agreed that because Johnson didn’t ground his putter, he couldn’t have caused the ball to move. They played on.

But nearly two hours later, after Johnson had moved two shots clear of a floundering Shane Lowry, he was informed on the 12th tee that the rules issue was still under review.

“Is there anything you could have done that caused the ball to move?” the USGA’s Jeff Hall asked Johnson.

“No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

And so the matter, Hall said, would be resolved following the round. That uncertainty didn’t sit well with Westwood, who voiced his displeasure with the three rules officials in the group.

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“I’m his playing partner, I’m his fellow competitor, and I’m not going to come down on his side and be biased if something happened that shouldn’t have happened,” Westwood told as he walked to his courtesy car late Sunday night. “But he didn’t cause it to move. It’s a shame it got revised.”

Naturally, social media exploded, with tweets from Rory McIlroy to Jordan Spieth to Rickie Fowler blasting the USGA’s actions. Their issue was two-fold: It was obvious that the severely sloping greens pushing 15 on the Stimpmeter, not Johnson, had caused the ball to move; and the USGA decided to inform Johnson and the walking scorers that there was only a possibility that he’d be docked a stroke at the end of the round under Rule 18-2/0.5, creating confusion for the rest of the field.

“Golf is a game of honor,” Jack Nicklaus said afterward behind the 18th green. “When you have a situation where an official is there and said, 'Did you cause it to move?' He says, 'No.' That should be the end of the story.”

Johnson has already become a sympathetic figure after his many major crackups, but as word of the potential pencil-whipping spread across Oakmont, the sun-burned spectators were even more boisterous in their support as they tried to push him across the finish line.

After the official interference, Johnson responded with five pars and a bogey to take what appeared to be a three-shot lead over Lowry and Scott Piercy. Despite his tortured history with 72nd holes, Johnson piped a 302-yard drive down the center on 18, then stuffed his 192-yard approach to 5 feet, sending fans in the packed grandstands into a tizzy. He would play his last seven holes in even par to shoot 69.

“The ability to shake off stuff like that, I still haven’t figured it out,” said his brother/caddie, Austin. “I’ve been trying to do that for 29 years now and I can’t figure it out. He’s unique when it comes to that. Nothing fazes him.”

With his approach in tight, Johnson slinked to the 18th green like a jungle cat. Fans rose to their feet and chanted, “Dee-Jay! Dee-Jay!” When his short birdie putt dropped, when his victory was secure no matter the penalty, he hugged Austin, scooped son Tatum into his arms, and smooched fiancée Paulina, prompting a slew of catcalls from the crowd.

Waiting behind the green was USGA executive director Mike Davis, who delivered the buzzkill that Johnson was still needed in the clubhouse for the rules review. After a 15-minute meeting with the four-person committee, Johnson was assessed the one-shot penalty, but it mattered little. He won by three, not four, and so he sauntered back toward the 18th green, hand in hand with Paulina, his trophy awaiting.

“I thought it was great,” Westwood said. “He held himself together and didn’t let it get to him.”

The trophy presentation was awkward at best.

Before Fox’s Joe Buck could even finish his question about how Johnson overcame the rules controversy, fans surrounding the green unloaded a chorus of boos so loud that it drowned out the inquiry. In the background, Davis wore a pained smile; USGA president Diana Murphy stood stone-faced behind the podium, her eyes begging Buck to change his line of questioning.

“This means absolutely everything,” said Johnson’s manager, David Winkle. “It’s validation for all of the work he’s done.”

That Johnson captured his first major a year after his most crushing loss was even more remarkable.

Perseverance never has been Johnson’s problem; his ability to put himself in position to get his heart broken over and over again was admirable, if not a bit depressing. But since Chambers Bay, he’s looked particularly vulnerable down the stretch, coughing up leads, exposing his flaws and offering even more ammunition for a growing legion of critics.

In the past year alone, there was a 75-75 finish at St. Andrews after holding the 36-hole lead. And there were weekend wobbles at Firestone … and Torrey Pines … and Doral. Even last week, at a mid-level PGA Tour event in Memphis, he threw up a 73 while in contention. His final-round scoring average (70.67) was more than two shots higher than Round 1 (68.33). Not one for introspection, Johnson shrugged off his Sunday woes as simply part of the game.

“It’s hard to win,” Nicklaus said, “particularly when you’ve been there a lot and don’t win. We’ve all been through it. You learn from that. If you don’t take it and learn from it and use it for your benefit, then it becomes a problem. If it continues to happen, then all of a sudden it gets in your head and you can’t really get it out.”

Oh, it's out now. Johnson's reputation as the best player not to win a major, as golf’s immensely talented but star-crossed sensation? It's gone, forever, after this unforgettable Sunday.

“I always knew this would happen, and I think it’ll happen multiple times,” Winkle said. “But it doesn’t matter who you are: You have to get the first one before you can get the second one. This was a huge hurdle.

“He’s always processed all this stuff differently than everybody else. But the clock is ticking, the questions grow and grow, and now he’ll have a little bit of relief from people wondering if he’ll ever get it done. A lot of people might have lost faith as to whether he was going to close one of these out, but he never did.”

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”