Golf’s Most Hyperbolic Major

It takes a certain kind of determination, and maybe even a little grudge (against professionally pretty golf), to sit down and watch the first two rounds of the U.S. Open, and I’m afraid that I have neither. In the first two rounds of a U.S. Open several hundred players, it seems, go off split tees, in threesomes, and, during their five-hour rounds, sweat through their hats (the USGA allows caddies to wear shorts, perhaps the lone concession the tournament makes to comfort), suffer strange penalty shots and are usually at some point forced to confer with a rules official. This doesn’t happen at every U.S. Open, of course, but it happens often enough to where we can call the event the most hyperbolic major. The rough is always the longest, the greens the toughest, whether by severe undulation or speed, or both, and the scoring the highest. The USGA labels such conditions challenging, and they are, I suppose, but when is golf not challenging? Do we need to see tour players and amateurs alike hacking out sideways after discovering that their tee shot missed the fairway by three yards? Putts that, once putted, look like experiments in volition physics? Do we need our national major, the United States Golf Association’s, to be the most challenging-est?

Apparently so, according to the 2016 edition at Oakmont. At the beginning of last week, during tournament practice rounds, various media outlets began reporting that Oakmont’s playing conditions were super tough. Nothing surprising there—but by mid-week, with a rainy forecast hovering over the first two days of play, the experts were predicting catastrophically bad scoring. There was talk of a 300-yard par-three and bunkers that had been maliciously oversanded. Some wondered if the 2007 Open contested at Oakmont and won by Angel Cabrera (at +5) would look, by comparison to the difficulties that awaited this year’s players, like fun. The cut line in 2007 was +10, meaning that if the 2016 Open proved tougher, the 36-hole leader would be over par. Enticing stuff if you like extremes, but in a news year that offers an endless supply of such I chose to sit out the first two days of play, hoping that by the weekend the story would be less about widespread struggle and more about the few players finding success.

Turns out I didn’t wait long enough, though, as the first two rounds bled into Saturday (the rain forecast was accurate), with Dustin Johnson, the 36-hole leader, teeing off on his 37th hole just after 5:00 pm (EST). At four under par through two rounds, well ahead of Cabrera’s 2007 pace, Johnson showed that Oakmont was playable, if you can carry the ball 250 yards, with an iron. Johnson was joined atop the leaderboard by American Andrew Landry, whose Wikipedia page accurately notes that he is a Golfer, and three Europeans: Frenchman Grégory Bourdy, Sergio Garcia, the best-to-never Spaniard, and Irishman Shane Lowry. Country of origin flags are helpful when watching a U.S. Open, whose leaderboards often look untranslated. Who are these guys? Whether they’re amateurs who qualified through a series of district and regional tournaments, or players ranked well outside the top 125, each year the U.S. Open faithfully introduces to the casual golf-watching public a player previously unknown. In addition to being the most challenging major, it’s also the most democratic.

By Sunday the flags had shifted around and Shane Lowry, who posted 65 in his third round, which included a one-stroke penalty for causing his ball to move, was four shots clear of Dustin Johnson. But the great thing about U.S. Opens is that four shots isn’t much. The economy of scoring is different when you can’t see the ball you’re trying to hit. Soon—I’m not really sure when, as Fox’s more-is-more approach to broadcasting the tournament hurled viewers between the back nine, the front nine, the practice tee, blimp shots of the highway bisecting Oakmont, bunker cams, shot trackers, 3-D green contour overlays, and Paul Azinger—Johnson caught Lowry, and had a penalty shot controversy of his own.

What happened? Well, Dustin Johnson was pre-lining up a putt (he was preparing to prepare to hit the putt) and his ball, which was at rest, moved. How much it moved I can’t say; Fox’s arsenal of cameras failed to provide evidence, to this viewer, of oscillation. But Johnson saw it, called his pairing’s rules official over and explained how the combination of trick greens and video game pin placements caused his ball to shift position. He didn’t say the part about the trick greens or video game pins (microphones caught him soberly laying out his case, clearly eager for a ruling, any ruling, so that he could continue), but I think he was thinking it, and I also think he didn’t care. He was playing well enough to hook his first major. The leader was faltering. Everyone on the course could gripe about something but nobody could opt out of Oakmont. The winner was going to be he with the smallest portion of self-inflicted scoring wounds, and Johnson, who had twelve holes remaining after the controversy, must’ve liked his chances.

At least, that’s how he played. On the back nine, some seven holes after consulting with the rules official—who told Johnson that no penalty was going to be assessed—Johnson was informed by a different rules official that a penalty might be assessed after the round. This set off a panic in the broadcast booth—Why not tell Johnson now, so that he knows what he needs to do to win?; Why not tell us now, so that we know how to watch?—and on Twitter. Rory McIlroy, tweeting from Ireland after missing the cut, ripped into the USGA and called for mutiny. The players on the course shouldn’t hit another shot, he said, until the “farce was rectified.”

Lots of good golf folks got exercised about the non-penalty penalty, but Dustin Johnson kept on. In the end he won the 116th U.S. Open by four shots, and in the very very end he won it by three. The penalty was assessed after all, as soon as Johnson walked off the 18th green, though it didn’t affect whose name went on the trophy, only the number next to it. In a way this is two victories. First and foremost it is Dustin Johnson’s, who proved he has the temperament to win a major (we’ve always known he had the game to). But secondarily it’s the USGA’s, who showed that they won’t be overshadowed by the game of golf. They are, once again, the main-est show.


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Lee Ellis's work has appeared in The Believer, Lucky Peach and