Dustin Johnson shook off the specter of a potential penalty controversy, leaving no room for doubt in his first major victory at the US Open in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, on Sunday.
With just one stroke separating Johnson from Shane Lowry at the top of the leaderboard, the US Golf Association (USGA) informed Johnson he could be assessed a penalty after the round for an infraction on the fifth green.
Johnson’s ball moved slightly as he prepared to putt for par. He spoke with a rules official and it was determined he did not cause the ball to move, so no penalty was assessed at the time, but with the title chase at its peak, Johnson and his nearest rivals on the course were informed that USGA officials planned to review video of the incident again after his round.
It was yet another major complication for Johnson, the world No. 6 who has endured a string of near misses in golf’s biggest events, including a three-putt at the 72nd hole of last year’s US Open that handed the title to Jordan Spieth, but he kept his focus and as Lowry faded with three late bogeys the entire matter became less pressing.
Johnson finished with a flourish, calmly draining a nine-foot par putt at 17 and a short birdie putt at the final hole.
When a penalty was indeed assessed, he still owned a winning margin of three strokes.
“I didn’t think that I did anything to cause the ball to move, but at the end of the day it didn’t affect what happened,” Johnson said. “So it doesn’t bother me at all.”
However, the response to the USGA’s handling of the matter by Johnson’s fellow professionals was scathing.
“Some great golf by @DJohnsonPGA all week, strong way to finish overcoming that rules farce,” tweeted Tiger Woods, who missed the tournament as he continues to rehab his bad back.
Other golfers were expressing outrage even before the round ended.
“This is ridiculous... No penalty whatsoever for DJ. Let the guy play without this crap in his head. Amateur hour from @USGA,” tweeted Rory McIlroy, who missed the cut at Oakmont.
Spieth, who finished his fourth round earlier, added: “Lemme get this straight... DJ doesn’t address it. It’s ruled that he didn’t cause it to move. Now you tell him he may have? Now? This a joke?”
World No. 1 Jason Day, who finished tied for eighth place six shots behind Johnson, said he could not fault the officials for informing Johnson that the penalty might be assessed.
“I’d probably rather know. I like to know where I’m at on the leaderboard,” Day said.
The USGA’s top rules official, Thomas Pagel, was unapologetic in the face of criticism.
He said a number of factors went into the decision to dock Johnson a stroke, including the steepness of the Oakmont greens, and the time that elapsed between the time Johnson put his putter behind the ball and the time the ball moved.
“It’s not going to be 100 percent clear, yes, the player caused the ball to move, but that’s not the standard we’re dealing with,” Pagel said, explaining that it only needed to be more likely than not that the player caused the ball to move for a penalty to be incurred.
“We understand not everyone is going to agree with that,” Pagel said.
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