The golfing world including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth appeared to unite in anger and dismay after a rules official approached Johnson on the 12th tee of his final round at Oakmont to revisit a possible infraction. On the fifth green, Johnson had called another official over after believing that his ball had moved before putting. That referee, Johnson and his playing partner Lee Westwood were happy the champion did not cause the ball to move and therefore no penalty was applied.
The United States Golf Association were berated for informing Johnson on the 12th that the incident would be revisited after his round. Uncertainty and chaos reigned over the closing stretch of the tournament. Ultimately – and thankfully for the USGA – a one-shot penalty didn’t matter as Johnson won his first major by three, but the affair will linger.
Johnson has passed up major opportunities before, most infamously at the 2010 US PGA Championship where a post-round penalty cost him a playoff place. “It definitely makes it sweet,” Johnson said, before glancing to the past. “It’s nothing new at this point. It’s happened so many times. I kind of expect it now. So for it to not affect the outcome is fantastic. It just shows how well I played.
“I don’t even know what I was thinking at the time. I wasn’t even worried about it at that point, I was just trying to focus on the shot that I was about to hit. I just told myself, ‘We’ll worry about it when I get done’.”
Johnson remains firm in his belief that no penalty should have been applied.
“On the fifth green, I called the rules official over over and told him what happened,” Johnson added. “Lee [Westwood] was standing right there. He saw it. So we both agreed that I didn’t cause the ball to move. So I just played on from there with no penalty.
“Still, watching the video, I still don’t think I caused the ball to move, but the USGA said I did. I don’t even understand the rule, but I got a penalty. It didn’t matter at the end of the day.”
Johnson answered “probably not” when asked if he thought a penalty would have been applied in a standard PGA Tour event. When the support of his fellow golfers was pointed out, he added: “Obviously, it’s great, and it just shows the support the guys have for each other because we’ve all been in that situation. There’s no way that I feel like that I caused that ball to move and they understand that because it’s happened to all of us at one time or another. So to have them supporting me and stuff, it’s definitely nice, and thank you to everyone who was supporting me.
“But at the end of the day, it’s ultimately up to the USGA to make the final decision and just fortunately it didn’t affect the outcome.”
Jack Nicklaus was less circumspect. “Give me a penalty or don’t give me a penalty. That’s what they should have done but they didn’t do that,” said the 18-time major winner.
Paul McGinley, Europe’s immediate past Ryder Cup captain, was also vociferous in his criticism. “We need some guidance from the ruling bodies, not confusion,” McGinley said. “It was quite clear what Lee Westwood said. We heard what the referee said. It was done and dusted on the fifth green; why did the USGA get involved? Why did they get involved and why did it take another seven holes to bring it to Dustin’s notice?
“Clarity and clearness was needed and it wasn’t provided. Dustin and everyone needed to needed know where they stood. There was not clarity and too much confusion. The game of golf did not deserve it.”
Still, the USGA’s Jeff Hall said the ruling body was “comfortable with the process that we had.” He added: “At the end of the day, it is about getting it right. We are pretty comfortable that we got it right today.
“When we have evidence and we review it, we need to act on that evidence, and that’s what we did as a committee. When we had the conversation with Dustin on the 12th tee, it was clear we needed additional conversation. Furthermore, we wanted him to see; he didn’t have the benefit of looking at the video. We had already seen the video. And we had an opportunity and an obligation, we felt, to explain the rule, and doing that in the middle of the 12th tee just didn’t seem like an appropriate time.
“We can’t waver about the rules of golf. We play by the rules.”
Johnson was happy to admit how much he cherished a major win after so many close calls, including at this event 12 months ago. “Coming into today, I’ve been in this situation time and time again,” he said. “So I knew it what to expect. I knew how to handle myself. For me to finally get it done on Sunday in a major, it’s a huge monkey off my back.”
Lost in the rules melee was Shane Lowry’s collapse from holding a four-shot lead with 18 holes to play. Lowry slipped to a closing 76, thereby sharing second place with Jim Furyk and Scott Piercy.
Lowry said Johnson was due “credit” for the way he finished. “I probably would have wanted to know straightaway if it was me,” added the Irishman, who could barely conceal his own upset. “I am bitterly disappointed, standing here. It’s not easy to get yourself in a position I got myself in today. It was there for the taking and I didn’t take it.
“But you can only learn from your mistakes, I always say it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. I’m sure I learned a lot from today and I don’t know what it is yet, but when I’m in that position again – and I know I will be I’ll handle it probably a little bit better.”
This article was written by Ewan Murray at Oakmont, for theguardian.com on Monday 20th June 2016 04.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010