- After watching his lead disintegrate on Saturday, Dustin Johnson needed to take advantage of a better course in the final round. But his struggles on the greens got the best him.
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Austin Johnson was trudging across the U.S. Open short-game practice area, clubs slung over his right shoulder, when he heard his name. “Go to the car!” his brother, Dustin, barked from the locker room. Austin sighed. “That’s where I was going,” he called. The Johnsons couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Dustin Johnson led the U.S. Open after every day but the one that counts. He shot an even-par 70 on Sunday to complete a collapse in his quest for a second major championship victory. He watched from feet away as playing partner Brooks Koepka leapfrogged him with a one-over tournament to become the first repeat winner of the U.S. Open since Curtis Strange did it in 1988 and ’89. More than 200 players have won at least one major. After Sunday, only 82 have won two. Johnson’s history at these events is checkered: He won the 2016 U.S. Open, but a controversial penalty at the ’10 PGA Championship kept him out of a playoff, and at the ’15 U.S. Open, he missed two putts within 12 feet to cost himself the win. On Sunday the problem was similar.
“We hit it good enough to give ourselves a chance,” Austin summarized. “We just didn’t putt well enough to win.”
Johnson’s length is legendary and unprecedented in golf. Koepka, his workout partner and good friend, calls him “a freak” in the weight room. Johnson, 33, ranks second on Tour in driving distance, averaging 315 yards, and he hit a 489-yard drive at the WGC-Dell Match Play championship in March, the longest since ShotLink began tracking such things in 2003. He ranks first in shots gained tee-to-green, with 1.809 per round. On Sunday, he tied for the lead by hitting 16 of his greens in regulation. That’s when the problems began.
He had birdie putts at No. 3 and No. 6, but missed both. He had par putts at No. 7, No. 11, No. 14 and No. 17. He missed them all. The USGA calculates that he conceded 2.24 strokes putting. He lost the U.S. Open by two.
Austin seemed baffled by his brother’s struggles. “He just didn’t have a good feel,” he said. The day before, Johnson had taken 38 putts, good for 64th in the 67-player field. He shot a 77 and allowed a four-stroke lead to disintegrate into a tie for first. He lamented the inconsistency of the greens, but said he thought he was close to fixing the problem. He spent nearly half an hour on the putting green, hitting balls until almost 8 p.m. After a press conference in which it admitted the course had become too difficult, the USGA spent the night watering the greens and moving the pins more toward the center. At their morning workout Sunday, Johnson even pointed out to Koepka, who hadn’t yet seen the placements, that they were more gettable. Koepka took advantage.
“I felt like I made those clutch eight- to 10-footers that you need to make to keep the momentum going,” Koepka said afterward. “We didn’t drive it that great, but you can make up so much with a hot putter. “
Johnson could not.
“Three three-putts,” Austin said. “Six three-putts the last two rounds. That’s the difference. We cut those in half, and … ” He trailed off.
It could not have been easy for Johnson that his heartbreak helped make possible his friend’s joy. They are constantly in touch, and share the same agency and strength coach, but they spoke only briefly on the course, when Koepka commented on the condition of the third green. Johnson congratulated Koepka on No. 18 before they headed off to very different evenings. Gold medal draped around his neck and trophy beside him, Koepka spent the end of his victory press conference lauding his friend. He remains confident that Johnson’s next major win is close.
“Going to the gym with him, you see how hard he works,” said Koepka. “You see how talented he is. He’s physically gifted. In my mind, he’s probably one of the most talented guys to ever play the game. And the attitude, the work ethic, everything that he brings to it, I mean, in my book, he will, when he’s done, probably go down as one of the best of all time.”
Johnson did not hear those words of praise. He did not shower or change his clothes. He did not speak to reporters. He signed a couple of hats for people waiting in the player parking lot and tossed a bracelet to the police officer who had escorted him all week. The USGA-issued black Lexus was pulled up and loaded for him—fiancée Paulina Gretzky sitting shotgun, Austin and two others crammed in the back, plus a sixth person riding with the clubs in the trunk. Johnson climbed into the driver’s seat. And at 6:47 p.m., 18 minutes after he sank a meaningless putt for birdie on No. 18, he drove away knowing that even the best players in the world only get a few chances to make history, and he had just dusted this one.