How Dustin Johnson saved golf -- by saving himself

What allowed Dustin Johnson to win the U.S. Open? (2:05)

Tom Rinaldi and Andy North break down how Dustin Johnson was able to win the U.S. Open. (2:05)

OAKMONT, Pa. -- Dustin Johnson didn't just win the U.S. Open on Sunday. He didn't just vanquish so many previous major championship failures to claim the biggest highlight of his career.

He saved golf from itself.

Really. What he did was that important.

The USGA, with its catchy "For the Good of the Game" slogan, did everything in its blundering power to condemn that narrative. On a day that should be celebrated as one of golf's crowning glories, the national governing body nearly caused unfathomable damage to its own product.

It all started on the fifth hole. Johnson was standing over a 6-foot par putt when he noticed his ball move slightly. He called over a rules official and explained that he didn't cause the movement. Lee Westwood, his playing partner, concurred. The official left. Johnson holed his putt. The round continued.

Until the 12th hole, that is. Then Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director of rules and competitions, informed Johnson that he was being subjected to video replay for an infraction of Rule 18-2b, for causing the ball to move after grounding his club.

Instead of the focus being on the dramatic conclusion to the year's second major championship, the USGA had stolen its own show. The immediate takeaway was that officials didn't trust Johnson's self-assessment. In a game of honor, in which players call penalties on themselves, this is a grave accusation.

As if that weren't shortsighted enough, officials waited seven holes to clue in the tournament leader. It was a double debacle, if you will, and one that didn't go unnoticed by Johnson's peers.

Rory McIlroy took to social media to call it "ridiculous." Tiger Woods insisted it was a "farce." Jordan Spieth deemed it a "joke."

They weren't alone. You'd be hard-pressed to find a PGA Tour member with a Twitter account who didn't voice his disbelief with how the situation was being handled.

But here's the thing: It could've been so much worse. For the USGA, for the game of golf, for everyone.

Starting on that 12th hole, once he knew he was being -- and this really is the proper term for it -- investigated for his potential violation, Johnson posted just one bogey, five nervy pars and a brilliant birdie on the final hole.

When he walked off that 18th green, he had completed 72 holes in 275 total strokes for what appeared to be a 4-stroke victory. Not long after, the USGA added one more stroke to his total.

"There's no way that I feel like I caused that ball to move," Johnson said afterward. "But at the end of the day, it's ultimately up to the USGA to make the final decision, and just fortunately, it didn't affect the outcome."

Therein lies the biggest save in a week filled with them -- and the biggest save of Johnson's career.

Here's where we can play the hypothetical game. What if Johnson hadn't played such rock-solid golf down the stretch of the tournament? What if Shane Lowry or Scott Piercy had made a few more putts on the final holes? What if Johnson had led by only a single stroke when he walked off that final green, with the USGA's decision effectively forcing him into an 18-hole Monday playoff? What if, even worse, he finished tied, with the decision causing yet another heartbreaking major loss in a career that has already seen too many?

If any of those things had happened, an unseemly day for the USGA would have become much bigger. It would have been a black eye on the game itself, the kind of fiasco that makes golf look absurd, as if it's making up the rules as we go along.

Instead, the USGA's quadruple-bogey affected only itself.

The beauty of the U.S. Open isn't just that it's the world's most democratic golf tournament, as fictional character Roy McAvoy said. Nor is it that it's the most difficult, annually tugging on the frayed nerves of its competitors for four grueling rounds.

No, much of the inherent beauty is that it's played on one of the game's greatest stages. Contesting the final round on Father's Day offers generations of families the opportunity to enjoy the proceedings together. For a large part of Sunday afternoon, the USGA spoiled that enjoyment, after it left the leader in limbo and left every observer wondering why the situation hadn't been rectified immediately.

Not long after he clinched what was deemed only a 3-stroke triumph after his penalty, Johnson was asked more questions about the ruling than about finally achieving this long-elusive pinnacle.

"I don't even understand the rule, but I got a penalty," he said. "It didn't matter at the end of the day."

It didn't matter -- and yet, it did. It mattered that the USGA made an error in judgment. It mattered that golf looked silly because of it. It mattered that a game so desperate for new, young faces was inexplicably turning them off due to poor procedural process.

In the end, it mattered that the eventual champion didn't allow himself to succumb to what would have been a dark day for the game.

In that respect, Dustin Johnson saved golf from itself.