THE 2016 U.S. OPEN
I’m not a Golfer, so I’m always hesitant about pontificating about the sport. I like watching it on T.V.., in the past have followed top golfers around a championship course, and applaud the athleticism, accuracy and composure of the world’s leading golfers. The consistent ability to bounce back and re-focus after a bad or unlucky shot, the stoicism demonstrated is remarkable. In the only sport which I played at any significant level – Chess – a mistake on the board is usually followed by a lengthy period of brooding introspection, rather than getting on with the contest, and a loss tends to be explained away by excuses. Not so in Golf, where there is a refreshing frankness about admitting mistakes or bad play.
These thoughts were prompted by the concluding round of the 2016 U.S. Open Championship on June 19. The championship was won by Dustin Johnson, with four under par, his first major victory after a number of disappointments and runner-up positions including the 2015 U.S. Open. Johnson had trailed Shane Lowry by four strokes entering the final round, but drew level by the turn and eventually won by three shots over a trio including Lowry, who, without collapsing totally nevertheless shot a disappointing 76 on one of America’s most difficult courses. Only four players broke par.
Posterity will record the bald facts of Dustin Johnson’s victory. Yet there was drama on that last round. On the fifth hole Johnson’s ball moved slightly on the green as he was shaping up to putt. By the rules of golf there was the possibility of a one shot penalty should Johnson have “addressed” the ball and grounded the putter. He summoned the officials, denied he had and was told to proceed. T.V. footage seemed to bear him out. He played on, continuing the “charge” that enabled him to overtake Lowry. Then, on the Twelfth Hole, USGA officials approached him to tell him there was a problem, a possible penalty stroke and that a decision would be taken at the conclusion of his round. Johnson continued and after an apparent slight lapse of concentration (he bogeyed Hole 14) , consolidated his lead, finishing with an excellent birdie. His four stroke victory margin was then cut to three.
There was disbelief, bordering on outrage, among Johnson’s colleagues including McIlroy, Speight and Fowler, all of whom thought Johnson was in the right and, moreover, that the USGA officials had behaved farcically and wrongly in not dealing definitively with the matter, one way or another, either on Hole 5 or Hole 12, rather than stringing Johnson along, with doubt nagging away inside him and the concentration of those just behind him also affected. Amen to that – my sentiments, shared with the television commentators and, I am sure, most of those watching. Afterwards Johnson dismissed the issue as being over. Afterwards also, the USGA apologised to Johnson!
Yet what if his victory margin been one after the final hole? He would have been pitchforked into a play-off after the penalty. (It could have been a somewhat different final round had Johnson been docked the stroke, either on Hole 5 or Hole 12, but that is too much conjecture.) It is to Johnson’s credit that he soldiered on and ensured he had sufficient margin over his rivals to fireproof his victory.
For he must surely have been haunted by the memory of the 2010 U.S.PGA at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. In a thrilling finish, involving a number of players, Johnson led by one stroke on the final hole. He bogeyed, which should have left him in a play-off but was then penalised two strokes for grounding his club in a bunker. The course is uniquely, some would say bizarrely, dotted with dozens of shallow mini bunkers – designed to resemble an Irish/British links course – and Johnson’s defence was that he had not realised he was actually standing in a bunker. Video footage shows a shambolic scruffy patch of sand and scutch grass, not the type of elegant delineated and manicured bunkers normally associated with U.S. championship courses. Johnson was forced to bite the bullet then, and of course he bit the bullet on this occasion also, but this time it didn’t matter. It will be interesting to see how Johnson fares in future with the ghost of the first Major now laid to rest.
For Shane Lowry the result meant that he has now very much arrived. He made no excuses for his final round and dismissed the idea that the putter grounding controversy affected him at the time. His time will surely come.