OAKMONT, Pa. — The venerable old course flirted, winked and even submitted a bit. That’s what 2.3 inches of rain on the first day of a championship will do to even the most difficult of layouts. But Sunday at the U.S. Open, it was Oakmont Country Club that got the last laugh.
Well, Oakmont and Dustin Johnson.
Almost lost in the confusion of the final round, had Johnson been penalized or not, was the fact that the venue embracing its ninth U.S. Open showed its glory and its brutality when it mattered most. This place is as hard to crack as that acorn the squirrel is holding on the club’s logo.
Yes, Johnson’s winning score of four-under-par 276 was nine strokes lower than Angel Cabrera’s effort in 2007. Blame that on how the rain softened the course. But the final nine holes on Sunday were littered with bogeys by those clinging to the leader board—especially down the stretch.
By sunset, Shane Lowry, Jim Furyk, Branden Grace, Sergio Garcia, Kevin Na, Scott Piercy, Jason Day and Johnson combined to make 15 bogeys and a double bogey over the last five holes.
Buried lies in the thick rough, plugged balls in bunkers and greens running at a speed that might have played a role in Johnson’s ball moving on the fifth green turned the last two hours of play into a grind that reminded you that winning the U.S. Open is hard work.
“It’s fun when it’s over,” Fox commentator Paul Azinger, who played in this tournament 18 times, said during the broadcast.
The U.S. Open is almost always that way, but Oakmont is something special, quite simply one of the most difficult golf courses on the planet. Even its new look, with about 15,000 trees removed, is intimidating.
Hell, the bus ride to the golf course is intimidating. The journey from downtown Pittsburgh winds its way along the Allegheny River, passing rusty rail lines and tired houses clinging to hillsides. Though the city has brilliantly re-invented itself, replacing steel as the heart of the economy with firms representing the medical, education and banking industries, memories of the gritty mill town it was remain. Toughness still hangs in the now breathable air.
Oakmont reflects how Western Pennsylvania once was. The course is hard work, as it was in the mills when steel was king here. Like the heat of the blast furnaces, Oakmont suffocates. As the players walked off, there was no hiding the exhaustion in their faces.
Scores from the first round of this year’s U.S. Open, spread out of two days due to all the rain, averaged 74.24 strokes. The equally lengthy second round saw the average drop to 73.60, while the third round played to the tune of 72.03. It was getting easier every day.
But that was just a coy seduction creating a false sense of security. On Sunday, it took an average of 73.46 strokes for the field to get around. That Johnson made only one bogey in the final round—and another assessed by the USGA—as Oakmont was fighting back and confusion engulfed the tournament was rather remarkable, particularly for a champion whose mental toughness has at times been questioned.
Of the eight previous winners of the U.S. Open at Oakmont, six are in the World Golf Hall of Fame: Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Larry Nelson and Ernie Els. And now we add Johnson’s name to that trophy.
Someday, Johnson may end up in the Hall of Fame, too. Regardless, he will be remembered as the oft-bitten victim in majors who finally got it done on one of the most difficult courses on one of the most bizarre days in the 121-year history of the championship.
Come Sunday, Johnson stepped into the blast furnace and, by day’s end, emerged, soot-covered but standing as others melted away. DJ was the winner, and yet so was Oakmont.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of Golf World.