- Dustin Johnson endured a challenging, tough-luck third round at Shinnecock to fall into a four-way tie at the U.S. Open after three rounds.
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — As his putt on the ninth green rolled to a stop 21 inches shy of the hole, Dustin Johnson calmly stood and surveyed the damage.
“If I hit it any harder,” he muttered, “I go down the f------ hill.”
He eventually holed that one for par, but it was one of many missed opportunities on the day. Johnson awoke Saturday morning with a four-stroke lead, the only golfer in the red; he will go to bed tied for first at three over par after shooting a seven-over 77. He dropped far enough that he will play in the penultimate pairing on Sunday along with his good friend Brooks Koepka.
On a day when so many players complained about the course that the USGA held an apologetic press conference, Johnson’s camp acknowledged the conditions. Johnson called it the best seven-over he had ever shot.
“There was definitely no four-under out there when we played, that’s for sure,” said his brother and caddie, Austin, referring to the scores carded by new co-leaders Daniel Berger and Tony Finau. Both made the cut by one stroke, at seven over par, and as a result played in early groups Saturday, when the course was more forgiving.
The U.S. Open is traditionally the toughest test in golf, but this iteration has drawn ire from nearly everyone who has played it (or sat in hours of traffic trying to reach it). Phil Mickelson was so fed up with his lie on the 13th hole that he swiped at an errant putt while it was still rolling, collecting a two-stroke penalty in what he said was a strategy to keep him from having to three- or four-putt. The problem today, Johnson contended, was the inconsistency.
“It was a tale of two different golf courses,” admitted Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA. Early groups enjoyed gentler winds and wetter greens; by the time Johnson teed off at 3:10 p.m., he found a surface that played more like glass than grass.
You could argue he has the best case for frustration. He disagrees. “I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I mean, for the most part, we all had to play this afternoon.”
Maybe he is so unbothered by the chaos because he has weathered worse. At the 2010 PGA Championship, at Whistling Straits, Johnson was preparing for a playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson when he learned he’d been assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in an unmarked bunker. He finished eighth. At the ’15 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, he had a 12-foot putt for the win and an eight-footer for the tie. He missed both. The next year, at Oakmont, still looking for his first major victory, he told officials on Sunday that his ball had moved on the fifth green. At the 12th tee, they informed him that he would be penalized a stroke, a decision that caused golfers including Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler to tweet in outrage on Johnson’s behalf. In that case, he birdied No. 18 to seal a three-stroke win.
So it made sense when Austin shrugged and said, “What good is yelling and getting mad at the USGA gonna do? It’s not gonna make the ball get in the hole any faster.”
There were a few times Johnson thought the ball would be in the hole, only to watch it skid out. He is such a long hitter that a fan at the No. 16 tee whispered reverently to a companion, “I just want to hear it.” On Sunday Johnson tied for fifth by hitting 72% of his greens in regulation; he just seemed to have no idea what to do when he got there. He dropped his first drive of the day within 13 feet of the pin and watched his birdie putt skid right by the hole. He three-putted No. 2 and missed a seven-footer for par on No. 7. Then came that near miss on No. 9. By the time his putt on No. 18 kicked up the hill and lipped out, Johnson just seemed resigned.
“I felt like I hit a lot of great shots out there today,” he said afterward. “Need to putt a little better tomorrow.”
As Johnson finished his press conference, the USGA began its. Johnson headed up to the putting green, where he stayed for nearly half an hour, quietly hitting balls as the sun set. On Saturday he woke up with the lead. On Sunday he has a chance to go to sleep that way.