He said, “I feel bad for Dustin.”
Jordan Spieth was outside the scorer’s tent, still absorbing the shock. I’m the 2015 U.S. Open champ. I’m halfway to the never-achieved, modern, calendar-year Grand Slam. But his ears were still ringing from one of those grandstand roar/moan/gasps that have no name, that collective wail of ten thousand constricted throats united in disbelief and sympathy. Dustin Johnson, mighty Dustin, had struck out.
Spieth is 21 years old, so he can’t have heard that sound too often, and certainly never at the decibel level achieved on Sunday evening at Chambers Bay. I, being somewhat older, have heard it several times. It’s the sound that accompanied Jean Van de Velde as he frittered away a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole of the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. It’s the sound that washed over Brandt Snedeker, one of the PGA Tour’s best putters, when he four-jacked from 15 feet at the 2009 BMW Championship, costing him a berth in the season-ending Tour Championship. (Johnny Miller to greenside reporter Roger Maltbie: “Can you just feel the pain there?”)
Golf grief is difficult to quantify, but anyone’s Top-10 list must include the two most memorable putting lapses in major championship history: Doug Sanders’ botched three-footer in the 1970 Open Championship at St. Andrews and Scott Hoch’s two-foot misfire on the second playoff hole at the 1989 Masters. Neither man would ever win a major, but Hoch’s anguish was amplified by the linking of his name, in a Sports Illustrated headline, to the universal label for frailty under pressure: Hoch as in Choke.
If one pro choking is hard to stomach, two pros choking is …well, it’s the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. Stewart Cink thought he needed to par the final hole to tie Retief Goosen. When he failed at that, he swiped at the ball and missed his tap-in for bogey. (“Ohhhhhhhhh!”) That miss cost him a spot in the subsequent playoff. Goosen, not to be outdone, missed his own two-footer—“OHHHHHHHHH!”—and had to come back the next day to play Mark Brooks for the trophy.
That story, at least, had a happy ending. Goosen won the playoff in Tulsa, and Cink, after eight years of mourning, captured the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry in a four-hole playoff with 59-year-old Tom Watson, who had a 10-foot putt to win on the final hole, but—well, I’ll let the crowd say it for me: “OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”
The agony tends to be inversely proportional to the length of the putt. Sam Snead missed from less than three feet at the 1947 U.S. Open, ultimately depriving him of the career Grand Slam. Then you have the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship, where I.K. Kim, already a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour, had a mere foot to negotiate before taking the traditional winner’s leap into the pond. She took a leap, all right—into the record books under “Shortest Missed Putt for Victory at a Major.” Photos of Kim, staring down at the ball, hand over her mouth, captured her anguish. And yes, she lost to Sun Young Yoo on the first hole of sudden death.
Sometimes it’s the death of a thousand cuts. I was there when Patty Sheehan, the LPGA superstar, raced out to a nine-stroke lead through 45 holes of the 1990 U.S. Women’s Open at the Atlantic Athletic Club. Suffering from dehydration, she suddenly lost both her swing and her composure, went down in a torrent of bogeys, and handed the title to the defending champion, Betsy King. When it was over, both women were crying. “Sheehan’s face in defeat was unforgettable,” I wrote. “Small crowds, wretched weather, the televised humiliation of the LPGA’s leading money winner—this tournament had it all, and it was all bad.”
How does Johnson’s pratfall rank? Very high, since he went from opportunity/anticipation to anxiety/despair within a matter of seconds. His eagle putt, which had it gone in would have beaten Spieth by a stroke, trickled past the hole with a minimum of urgency, postponing the full-throated roar he deserved for birdieing No. 17 and smacking his mid-iron approach to a sweet spot behind and above the hole. But D.J.’s birdie putt from inside 4 feet missed left and exposed him to that cacophonic bleacher blast that scatters the seagulls and sears one’s soul. “I did everything that I could,” Johnson said afterwards. “I tried my damnedest to get it in the hole. I just couldn’t do it.”
The closest analog to Spieth’s windfall happened before my time, with the great Ben Hogan playing the Dustin Johnson role. Hogan needed to birdie the 18th at Augusta National to edge Herm Keiser for the 1946 Masters title, but the great man’s putt for three slid a couple of feet past the hole. Needing merely to hole out to force an 18-hole playoff, Hogan carefully lined up his two-footer, settled over the ball, and then stabbed his putt, completely missing the hole. And as sure as I’m writing this on a MacBook Pro, the crowd at 18 went “Ohhhhhhhhhh!!!”
They felt bad for Ben.
This article appeared in the most recent issue of SI Golf+ Digital, our weekly e-magazine. Click here to read this week’s issue and sign up for a free subscription.