U.S. Open slips away painfully from Dustin Johnson

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Walking away from the three-putt that may spawn a thousand nightmares, Dustin Johnson took solace in an appropriate place on Father's Day.

He cradled Tatum Gretzky Johnson, the golfer's five-month-old son, in his arms. His fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, walked alongside, patting Dustin gently on the back. When Johnson got to the scorer's trailer to sign for the final-round 70 that cost him the U.S. Open by an agonizing stroke, he smooched Tatum and handed him back to Paulina.

She sat down in a nearby golf cart, absently kissing the baby's head. Soon, her parents – former hockey great Wayne Gretzky and wife Janet – arrived and took Tatum. Paulina kept reaching under her sunglasses to wipe away tears until Dustin came back out.

Dustin Johnson three putts the 18th hole to lose the U.S. Open. (AP)
Dustin Johnson three putts the 18th hole to lose the U.S. Open. (AP)

"C'mon, hon," he said, taking her by the hand and boarding the van to the player's locker room.

Johnson skipped the trophy presentation on the 18th green, which probably hints at how much this hurt. His explanation, outside the locker room: "I did get to hold up my trophy at the end of the day, which is my son."

He matter-of-factly answered questions about the cruel 72nd hole of this championship. He discussed how two brilliant shots on the par-5 18th hole were followed by three disastrous putts from 12 feet, handing a second straight major to 21-year-old Jordan Spieth. If there was an understandable urge to curl up in the fetal position for the foreseeable future, he hid it well.

"I'm proud of the way I handled myself," he said.

He handled everything Chambers Bay threw at him. Until the final green.

"It was a tough putt," Johnson said of the first one, the slippery 12-foot attempt at eagle that could have won him the tournament outright. "Fortunately I got to see [playing partner Jason Day's] putt, or I might have hit that thing 10 feet by the hole. I barely touched it. I don't understand how my ball ended up there."

The eagle putt came to rest about four feet past the hole. The comeback birdie attempt would have sent Johnson into a Monday playoff with Spieth.

That's the one that will haunt.


According to stats, Johnson came to Chambers Bay having made 96 percent of his putts inside five feet this season. In a vacuum, a putt of that distance is pretty close to automatic for him – and for most high-level pros.

Of course, the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open is no vacuum. It's a public crucible.

There are no teammates to ask for help. It's you at the foul line with no time left and your team trailing by one. You're basically stripped bare and commanded to perform what should be routine.

That's when routine becomes arduous. On munis everywhere, it's a putt you and I hope a playing partner would give us to avoid knocking knees and sweaty palms.

In the U.S. Open, there are no gimmes.

"I read just inside right [edge], and I don't know," Johnson said. "Thought I hit it pretty decent. I just missed."

Just missed. It was the story of Sunday for Dustin Johnson.

The 30-year-old (he turns 31 Monday) has had great Sunday chances to win majors before – most notably the 2010 U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Both ended abysmally: he shot 82 in the Open and missed a playoff in the PGA after grounding his club in a hazard on the final hole and being assessed a two-stroke penalty.

On this Sunday, Johnson started the day in a four-way tie for first with Spieth, Branden Grace and Day at 4-under par. After eight holes, Johnson appeared to be in control of the tournament.

His lead was two shots, after two birdies and several easy pars. Day was struggling mightily, trying to fight through vertigo for a second straight day. Spieth hadn't been able to gain traction and was even for the day. Grace was 1-over.

After six months away from the Tour in 2014 "to seek professional help for personal challenges," Johnson was authoring quite a comeback story. The 2015 season has been a big success for Johnson, and now he was on the cusp of a breakthrough in a major.

Dustin Johnson's chair sat empty during the U.S. Open awards ceremony. (AP)
Dustin Johnson's chair sat empty during the U.S. Open awards ceremony. (AP)

Then the missed putts started to pile up.

An 11-footer for birdie just skipped by on No. 9. So did a 6-footer for par on No. 10. In the 11th fairway, as Spieth started producing roars in the group ahead, Johnson asked for a tin of chewing tobacco from his caddie and brother, Austin. The pressure was mounting.

The chew didn't help. Another 6-footer for par missed on No. 11, and Johnson lost the lead for the first time Sunday.

On the 12th he had six feet for birdie and barely missed. Then he pushed a five-footer for par wide of the mark on 13. In the span of five holes and by a combined distance of about five inches, Johnson tumbled from in control to in trouble.

"I hit the shots I needed to hit," he said. "I just didn't get the ball in the hole quick enough."

When Spieth birdied the 16th and Johnson took another par after another birdie chance danced past the cup, the tournament appeared to be over. Johnson was three shots behind.

But Spieth shockingly re-opened the door with a double-bogey on the par-3 17th. Moments later Johnson hit his tee shot there to 6½ feet. He finally made a putt, and it was time for a dramatic showdown at the 18th hole.

After a week of criticism of the course, Chambers Bay was bailed out by a thrilling conclusion.

By the time Johnson got to the 18th tee, Spieth had given himself 18 feet for eagle up ahead. Spieth missed that putt but tapped in for birdie and a one-shot lead.

With everything riding on his shoulders, Johnson busted a promethean drive – a 360-yard cannon shot into the fairway. Then he fired a spectacular iron into the green, listening to the gallery roars escalate as the ball rolled onto the top shelf where the pin was located.

At the green, Johnson believed he was destined to win.

"I told my brother, 'This is exactly why I'm here, why I play the game of golf. I've got the chance to win the U.S. Open on the last hole," he said.

But also the chance to lose it.

This was not a meltdown defeat, like the 2010 Open. It was not a brainlock mistake, like the PGA that year. But it was a devastating way to lose – a blown putt that will rank with Scott Hoch's missed two-footer in the 1989 Masters and Doug Sanders' three-foot miss in the 1970 U.S. Open.

Neither of those men ever won a major. Dustin Johnson is talented enough to have many other opportunities – but he let a golden one escape him here Sunday. The nightmares come next.