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Johnson answers critics in best possible way with Open win

Jun 19, 2016; Oakmont, PA, USA; Dustin Johnson celebrates with fiance Paulina Gretzky while holding their son Tatum after winning the U.S. Open golf tournament at Oakmont Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 19, 2016; Oakmont, PA, USA; Dustin Johnson celebrates with fiance Paulina Gretzky while holding their son Tatum after winning the U.S. Open golf tournament at Oakmont Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

OAKMONT, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - While soaking up perhaps the greatest pressure he has ever experienced, Dustin Johnson delivered a perfect riposte to criticism of his major credentials with a drama-laden U.S. Open victory on Sunday.

The American had to overcome a brutal Oakmont course, the spectre of a one-stroke penalty hanging over his head and suggestions by some that he did not have the strength of character or clutch putting required to win a grand slam crown.

In every respect, the long-hitting Johnson prevailed. The 31-year-old came from four behind heading into the final round and kept errors to a minimum as he survived the toughest test in golf to triumph by three shots.

Ultimately penalised for a rules infraction on the fifth green after his round ended, Johnson displayed nerves of steel over the closing stretch, making several clutch putts on a day when the entire field struggled on lightning-fast greens.

It was a consummate performance in the pressure-cooker situation of a major championship final round with the title on the line and, in Johnson's case, previous emotional baggage and uncertainty over that rule decision heightened the challenge.

He had previously recorded 11 top-10s in the majors without winning, including two-runner-up spots, and he agonisingly missed a three-foot putt at the final hole to hand last year's U.S. Open at Chambers Bay to Jordan Spieth.

That has certainly been Johnson's most heartbreaking loss, given that he had reached the par-five 18th at Chambers Bay in two and lined up a 12-foot eagle putt for the title, but he had been badly scarred by other near-misses in grand slam events.

At the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the American power hitter squandered a three-shot lead in the final round as he closed with an 82.

That same year in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Johnson was hit with a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 18th hole and missed out on a playoff for the trophy with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.

Doubts over his ability to close out a major escalated, and many questioned his putting under pressure.

EXTRAORDINARY TALENT

Prior to Sunday's long-awaited victory at Oakmont, Johnson was a nine-time winner on the PGA Tour blessed with extraordinary talent, an athletic swing and prodigious length off the tee, but he was also a perennial major letdown.

With the loose-limbed swagger of a gunslinger as he strides confidently down the fairways, Johnson has always made the game look remarkably easy but, until last week, he had been unable to translate that into success at golf's highest level.

All that changed for Johnson at Oakmont Country Club on a layout widely regarded as the toughest in golf where he triumphed in the major championship viewed as the most exacting.

"Obviously winning any tournament, there's a lot of satisfaction, but to get it done in a major, especially when I've been so close so many times, it's just an unbelievable feeling," said Johnson. "It's hard to even describe.

"For me to finally get it done in a major, it's a huge monkey off my back. I've worked so hard to get here. I've put myself in this position many times, and to get it done is definitely sweet."

Johnson was the only player in the field to go bogey-free in the opening round, firing a three-under 67, and by the end of the tournament, he led the charts in average driving distance (316.75 yards) and greens in regulation (hitting 55 of 72).

"This is one of the best weeks I ever drove the ball for sure," said Johnson, who climbed to third in the world rankings on Monday.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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