OAKMONT, Pa. — Maybe Dustin Johnson is smarter than the average golfer after all.
The whispers around golf were that the most powerful player in the game didn’t have a head for the game. The prevailing wisdom — fueled by a pair of previous 18th-hole miscues — was that if he ever did win a major championship, someone else would have to give it to him.
Instead they tried Sunday to take one away from him, and he yanked it right back.
A steely 10-footer for par on No. 16 put Johnson in command, even as he dealt with a possible penalty for his ball moving on a green holes earlier. The 6-iron of his life on the 18th put his name on the U.S. Open trophy.
No need for further review. No need for any questions at all.
The bumblers from the U.S. Golf Association could have thrown in a two-shot penalty for not being clean shaven, and Johnson still would have been holding their coveted trophy aloft.
What played out on a steamy day at Oakmont Country Club was as much about redemption as it was winning. It was just as much about perseverance as it was making up a four-shot deficit to Shane Lowry.
This was a player who gave away his shot at a PGA Championship by grounding his club on the final hole in a hazard he didn’t understand. This was a player who spit up a lead in the final round of one Open, and three-putted from 15 feet on the final hole to give another one away last year.
A player who could have crumbled when told on the 12th tee that he might be penalized a stroke for an infraction that may or may not have occurred seven holes earlier.
That he didn’t says a lot about how smart Johnson might be about a game that can sometimes make you look awfully dumb.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities that I didn’t quite get it done,” Johnson said. “So this one’s definitely really sweet.”
The first clue that this might finally be Johnson’s turn to win his first major didn’t come when he opened up a lead over the first two rounds of the storm-delayed championship. He’s been there several times before, including last year at Chambers Bay, and always seemed to find a unique way not to get the job done.
It came instead on the back nine when, locked in a tight battle with Lowry and facing the possibility of a one-shot penalty, he somehow managed to keep his thoughts — and his game — in check while others struggled to do the same.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to be penalized, so I just went about my business,” Johnson said. “Just focused on the drive on 12 and from there on out, that we’d deal with when we got done.”
Johnson thought he wasn’t going to be penalized because he felt as if he had done nothing wrong. He told that to the USGA official who came to him on the 12th tee, and it was agreed that any penalty would be delayed until they discussed it after the round.
But it was clear where the USGA was heading. Jeff Hall, the senior director of rules, went on the Fox telecast while play was still ongoing to say it appeared Johnson inadvertently moved the ball with his putter, which would be a one-shot penalty.
“That’s certainly what we saw when we looked at the video,” he said, “that Dustin moved it.”
Johnson would make sure it didn’t matter, though the USGA did indeed penalize him. He ended up winning by three, but imagine what would have happened if he had finished ahead by one or tied as he was several times on the back nine.
“I think it’s very unfair to the player,” said Jack Nicklaus, who won the Open here in 1962 and greeted Johnson as he came off the green. “They said, ‘What did cause the ball to move?’ He said ‘I don’t know.’ We all know they can move anytime.”
It wasn’t only unfair to Johnson, it was unfair to the fans. They watched while wondering just what the score really was, taking some of enjoyment out of what was happening in front of them.
On Twitter, fellow pros Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler all raised howls of protest over the possibility of a penalty, too.
In the end, it didn’t matter, and for that the stuffed shirts at the USGA should eternally be grateful. Johnson spared them the embarrassment of their ineptitude spoiling the Open.
They couldn’t take one away, and Johnson didn’t kick this one away.
“I think it’s well deserved,” Johnson said. “After everything that I’ve been through in the majors, I’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times. To finally get that major win, it’s huge.”
Winning words, spoken by someone that at least for one day proved smarter than the average golfer.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg