Shocking. Heartbreaking. Appalling. Those are just a few adjectives to describe the atmosphere around the 18th green after Dustin Johnson missed a three-footer for birdie to tie Jordan Spieth at five-under for the championship and miss out on an 18-hole playoff the following day to go head-to-head for the U.S. Open title.
My God. Did that really just happen? The fans in the largest-ever grandstands surrounding the 72nd hole murmured and gasped in horror. No one knew what to say or think.
Moments ago, Johnson had a 12-footer for eagle to win — which would have been the first time that had happened in the history of the U.S. Open — but it wasn’t the easiest one of its kind, especially on the much-criticized greens. It was downhill and appeared to be breaking slightly left-to-right. Johnson barely touched it and it slid just past the left edge of the cup and finally came to rest three feet away.
Oh, man, that’s not a gimme. He’s going to miss. Please don’t miss. Please go in, go in. Holy…
Wow, he actually missed the three-footer for birdie that would have vaulted him to five-under for the tournament and a share of the lead with Jordan Spieth, who had just finished in the group ahead of him and successfully tapped-in for his birdie.
“(The greens) do bounce and when they are fast and bumpy, it’s tough to get it in the hole,” said Johnson, leaning against the side of the Player Lounge tent. “Whatever the putt did on the last hole, I don’t know. I might have pulled it a little bit. But still to me it looked like it bounced left. It’s tough. It’s very difficult.”
Prior to that, Johnson, who missed a number of short putts on Sunday, not to mention all week, had hit a dart to five feet on the par-3 17th. He needed it badly. Johnson had led by two at one point on the front nine — albeit, short-lived — but then got off to a poor start on the back, with sloppy bogeys on nos. 10, 11 and 13 (which was also around the time I decided to stop walking with that group and catch up with Spieth and Branden Grace).
Following that birdie on the penultimate hole, DJ, who put on a ballstriking clinic all week, hit two of the best shots of his life, piping yet another drive straight down the middle, which left him with merely a 5-iron for his second into the par-5. After he knocked it 12 feet, it seemed like it would be a lock that Johnson would get into a playoff at the very least. I mean, 9 out of 10 times, that’s an automatic two-putt, right? But, this was the final round of the U.S. Open, dubbed the toughest test in golf — which tries players mentally and physically.
In case you were wondering, the thought of having a putt to win the U.S. Open did cross Johnson’s mind.
“On the last green, just talking to my brother, this is exactly why I’m here,” said Johnson. “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 hasn’t worked out for DJ a number of times.
DJ took his time with the eagle putt, but he seemed to rush the three-footer. It felt like a good time for his caddie and brother Austin to have intervened for a moment and give him a pep talk, but he said nothing and just let DJ go about his business, per usual. That seems to be the norm for their relationship. They’ll chat and make jokes and laugh, but they don’t have the same type of working bond that, say, Spieth and his looper Michael Greller display, where Spieth clearly leans on Greller in times of frustration and despair, relying on the former schoolteacher to pick him up and calm him down. Greller doesn’t serve as simply a bag carrier, rather he’s a psychologist, caddie, friend, confidante, and all-around life coach to Spieth. Perhaps Dustin would thrive if he had his equivalent of Greller.
Johnson, however, would blame his poor putting or inability to get the ball in the hole with the flatstick.
“(I’m) disappointed,” said Johnson, expressing his reaction to the outcome. “I played really well. I didn’t make any putts today, I really didn’t. I had all the chances in the world.
“I’m really proud of the way I hit ball. Proud of the way I handled myself all day. I gave myself chances all day long. If I rolled the putter halfway decent today, which I did roll it well, just any putts go in the hole, I win this thing by a few shots, it’s not even close. It’s just how it goes.
“I thought I played really well. I did everything that I could. I tried my damndest to get in the hole I just couldn’t do it.”
Johnson, who has now effectively thrown away four majors, tried to focus on the positive.
“I’m disappointed that I 3-putted the last hole,” he 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 again 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.”
Instead of hoisting the U.S. Open trophy, his fiancee Paulina Gretzky handed Johnson their baby son Tatum, which provided DJ with solace.
“At the end of the day, golf is golf,” he said. “I’ve got my family and that’s most important to me. My trophy at the end of the day is holding up my little man. I couldn’t be more proud of myself and my family. No matter what I’m going to keep my head high and I’m going to be happy.”
That’s good perspective, but you have to think that this loss is going to sting — more so than his previous disappointments with close calls at majors.
“Starting the week all you want is a chance to have a chance to win on the back nine on Sunday,” said Johnson. “I did that. I put myself in the position. I hit the shots I needed to hit. I just didn’t get in the hole quick enough.
“I had a lot of putts on the back nine from six feet and in that I missed. All of them I thought I hit good putts on. So it’s tough, but that’s how it is. It’s hard to get it in the hole out here. You know that starting the day. I did everything I could. I played well. I hit the ball well.
“I gave myself looks — just wasn’t my time.”
With his prodigious talent, you have to believe that it will indeed be Johnson’s time at some point. He’s been in the mix too many times. He’s too good. He’s thrown away his chances four times now, like I said, this one has to hurt the most. I mean, it was painful simply to witness.
We’ve now seen him throw away close calls four times at the major championships. He has likely learned something from each one, with the first being at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which we’ll chalk up to inexperience, then the bunker-not-a-bunker debacle at the 2010 PGA Championship, and next, the 2011 Open Championship, where he hit it OB on 14 in the final round.
None of them, however, compare to the shock and horror that resonated around the 18th green at Chambers Bay on Sunday.
The question is now when will he finally break through — or will he ever? It has to happen for him at some point, though. He’s way too good to elude a major in his entire career. Good news is he has time, as he turns 31 on Monday. It probably won’t be the most memorable birthday in the world in more than one way.