Thoughts on the 2016 US Open
Dustin Johnson won the 2016 U.S. Open on Sunday at Oakmont, holding off a group of quality contenders and the stupidity of the USGA en route to a
four three shot victory over Jim Furyk, Scott Piercy and Shane Lowry. Here are my takeaways from the week.
1. Dustin Johnson, narrative killer
This one was a long, long time coming. Over the years, we’ve seen Johnson come so close to winning several major championships that much like Phil Mickelson at the U.S. Open, it’s actually difficult to rank which ones caused the most heartbreak and if this past week had gone a certain way (which I’ll get to in a minute), the 2016 U.S. Open would have likely shot to the top of the list. The big thing with Johnson has always been that for as much otherworldly talent that exists in his body, there’s been an equal amount of destructive forces present as well that have prevented him from achieving his enormous potential, and to be honest, I don’t think that characterization is altogether unfair.
We’ve seen Johnson overpower every course he’s ever teed it up at, only to see him struggle with the short clubs. We’ve seen Johnson have a soft as butter touch around the green with his wedges, only to see him hit terrible putts when he got on the surface. We’ve seen Johnson have mental lapses that have caused many to wonder if he was in fact too dumb to put it altogether, and that him combined with his brother on the bag was a pair that could never win the big one. All of that, every single bit of that, is now gone with this win.
Yes, there were points when he struggled with his wedges early in the round, but those were rectified quickly and the same is true of the putter. Johnson hit putts down the back nine at Oakmont that we’ve all seen him miss time and time again, and the mental side? Not only did he deal with the bullshit given to him by the USGA (which, again, I’ll get to shortly), but he actually made an adjustment during the round that speaks to where his head was at going down the stretch.
All week, Johnson mentioned that he wasn’t going to try and hit driver on the short par-4 17th. He had enough distance to get there for sure, but he was going to take the safe route and lay up in the fairway because in his words, “I’d like to be 100 yards out with a wedge in my hands at Oakmont.” Well, on Sunday, a day where his driver was as on point as I can remember and his irons were a little loose on the tee, he decided to take out driver and go at the green for the first time all week. It honestly didn’t matter to me that he put it in the front bunker. He made four pars there all week, so if you looked at the scorecard, you wouldn’t notice much of a difference, but he changed it up to something that he felt was the right call, and you know what? It probably was the right call. This final day was everything that we’ve expected out of Dustin Johnson for years, and we finally got to see it happen.
I don’t know that Johnson is going to go on and win every major from here until 2020, but with his game, it certainly feels possible, doesn’t it?
2. The USGA
Okay, so the big elephant in the room is the rules situation that could have cost Johnson the championship. A quick recap in case you somehow missed what happened:
- Johnson was on the 5th green getting ready to putt. As he was going through his practice routine, his ball moved without him soling the putter behind it. He did place his putter behind the ball, but never officially addressed it by putting it down on the surface.
- Johnson called over a rules official, and along with partner Lee Westwood, it was determined that Johnson didn’t cause the ball to move and would not be assessed a penalty. Johnson made his par putt and advanced to the 6th tee.
- While on the 12th tee (yes, the 12th), Johnson was approached by a pair of USGA rules officials who wanted to know if he could have done anything to make the ball move. Johnson said he didn’t believe so, and the officials decided to not take him at his word, suggesting that he could have made the ball move and that they wanted to show him the video after the round. He was then told that there could be a penalty assessed after the round was complete.
If you’re shaking your head right now after reading that, it’s probably because you have a brain and common sense. Before you read any further, I suggest that you click here and watch the grilling that Brandel Chamblee and Frank Nobilo gave the USGA on the air last night on Golf Channel because it’s the skewering that they honestly deserve. On top of that, the most prominent players in the world aired their grievances with the USGA during and after the event in a way that I have never seen before.
First off, it’s good to see that Tiger is still alive. Secondly, has anyone ever seen a reaction like this? There are so many more tweets that I could embed, and not once did I see a player who thought that the USGA made the right call. As Chamblee mentioned in the clip above, I have never seen a single player cause a ball to move by taking practice putts and soling the putter beside the ball. It just doesn’t happen, and as Snedeker said, how on earth does the ball move backwards on that if Johnson caused it to move? Maybe it had something to do with your lightning fast greens that you spent all week pumping up as a true test of golf. Maybe it had something to do with the slope or the poa or a brief gust of wind.
On top of that, how can you tell a player that he might be penalized AFTER the round? Not only is it unfair to the player being penalized, but it’s also unfair to the rest of the field. Think about the drivable par-4 17th. It didn’t end up mattering anyway because of where the scores ended up, but if Shane Lowry walks to the tee with a share of the lead, it’s a completely different scenario than him getting there and being one down. It goes from potentially a layup to preserve the tie, to a “go for the green” in one. Even with the players knowing there was the potential for Johnson to be penalized, it completely changed the complexion of the tournament. They knew they were penalizing him when they told him on the 12th tee, and that’s when it should have been given out.
One of the selling points of golf has always been the idea that it is a game of honour and trust. Players call penalties on themselves all the time and generally do the right thing, which helps build core values that you take with you once you leave the course. The USGA, in effect, called Dustin Johnson a liar yesterday and decided to penalize him because they could.
For years, the USGA has turned a blind eye to the distance issue and decided to do nothing about it while players fly 2-irons over 300 yards. Ultimately, their inaction on that is going to be the biggest black mark they leave on the game, but situations like this where they decide to enforce something, with no proof, that had no impact on the tournament counters any amount of good that comes from their campaigns to grow the game. They’re lucky that Johnson had enough of a lead after it was over that it didn’t cost him the tournament, but imagine watching golf for the first time yesterday and trying to understand that whole thing. You’d never want to pick up a club and learn the game.
The USGA should be both thankful and embarrassed with what happened yesterday, and with how the players reacted to the decision, you can bet that this is far from over.
The Fox Broadcast
So, we all remember that last year, Fox had a bit of a rough time with their broadcast of the U.S. Open. The combination of their first event as a crew on a weird course presented a lot of challenges that made watching the coverage more difficult than it had been in previous years with NBC. This year though, the improvement was immense.
The first big change, swapping out Greg Norman for Paul Azinger as lead analyst, was a huge success. Azinger’s a veteran broadcaster with a large vocabulary and a flair for the dramatic, so it was a natural fit and he worked so well with Joe Buck, Curtis Strange and Brad Faxon, that it felt like they had been broadcasting together for years. Changing Holly Sonders’ role from interviewer to part-time course host with Gil Hanse and Oakmont legend Bob Ford worked great, and Shane Bacon as the post-round interviewer did a tremendous job as well. Ken Brown came over from the BBC and provided good analysis and levity when needed.
Their technology, which was great last year, got even better this year. Somehow, it seemed like they jammed more Pro Tracer into the broadcast than they did in 2015, and the split screen view that you see above was an incredible addition too. The mics in the cups still sound a little strange to me when the ball goes in the hole, but having them pick up conversations on the green is amazing and the video game style green grid gave viewers a look at just how insane the greens at Oakmont can be.
It wasn’t all perfect, of course. The camera work at points was weak, but the biggest problem they had was that they too frequently lost touch with some of the players. Sergio Garcia was only a few shots off the pace on Sunday, and after his opening tee shot, it took about an hour to see him again. That can’t happen, especially when it’s someone like Garcia who isn’t far off the lead.
Ultimately though, it was leaps and bounds ahead of the product from last year, and best of all, they showed an absolutely insane amount of golf. Even with the delay from the first day, they managed to get the tournament back on track and not miss anything of value, with more than ten hours of TV coverage on each day of the tournament. They treated it like a major championship, and gave the viewers what they wanted. That’s all you can ask.
Coming into the week, I was asked what I thought the winning score would be for the tournament and my response was that I was pretty sure if the players were told they could skip 72 holes and be given +4, they’d take their chances. That would have been good enough for a tie for 13th place, and a lot of that had to do with the soft conditions presented early. By the time Oakmont was truly able to show its teeth, the players were far enough in front of that number that they weren’t going to come all the way back, but even though it wasn’t as tough as I’m sure the USGA wanted it to be, it was still great to see Oakmont again. It didn’t feel tricked out like Merion, and was obviously more of a classic U.S. Open test than Chambers or Pinehurst, so I thought it was a lot of fun.
Stars Miss The Cut
Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Patrick Reed, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy, Brandt Snedeker, Webb Simpson, Jimmy Walker, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama, Smylie Kaufman and Kiradech Aphibarnrat would make one hell of a Ryder Cup team. It’s also just a sampling of the names that ended up missing the cut at Oakmont, and honestly, you shouldn’t read too much into it. It wasn’t the best setup for a player like Phil, Casey or Snedeker and even for players who it should favour, like Rory, Oakmont is such a stiff test, that two days on the course isn’t enough of a sample size to get concerned. When you throw in the stops and starts because of the weather, it’s even more understandable. Even though he didn’t miss the cut, you can throw Jordan Spieth’s name in the same boat as well. Nothing to worry about.
- Andrew Landry: He was the story of the tournament for me until he blew up on Sunday, and even though he couldn’t close it out, it was so easy to be impressed with his game, especially from the tee. Guys like Landry are proof of how insanely deep the talent pool is in the game right now, and I’m going to be interested to see what happens with him from here on out.
- It was absolutely the right ruling and DJ didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s hard to not see the humour in him taking a drop on Sunday because of line of sight due to a TV tower and then taking advantage of the better lie just to hit it over the tower anyway.
- Sergio Garcia: It’s a good thing if you keep putting yourself in a position to win, right? I thought Sergio had a great week and it really does seem like he’s in a much better headspace than he’s ever been in. I predicted him for Troon at the beginning of the year, and I’m sticking to it.
- Shane Lowry: Tough to watch him not seal it on Sunday with a four shot lead, but he’s simply too good of a player to not put himself back in a similar position soon. He’s going to be a pain in the ass at Hazeltine if you’re an American, too.
- I would have killed to hear from Johnny Miller on Sunday during the DJ rules debacle.
- Lee Westwood: Lee just didn’t have it on Sunday, but by all accounts, he really helped DJ out during the rules mess. I’m not sure that he’s going to get one of these, but it’d be great to see him do it.
- Jim Furyk: Another runner-up finish at Oakmont, but he closed with a great 66. He’s played alright since coming back from the wrist problem, and even though a lot of people won’t want to hear it, you shouldn’t be surprised to see him on the Ryder Cup team again.
- Am I the only one that wouldn’t mind seeing Fox take over more golf coverage? At this point, I’m comfortable suggesting that they’re at least better than CBS.