News & Opinion

Johnson shrugs off bad breaks en route to top

ERIN, Wis. – After three-putting from 12 feet on the 72nd hole to lose the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson hopped into a courtesy car with his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, her father, Wayne, and caddie/brother Austin Johnson. The person who handled the setback best was none other than Johnson.

"It wasn't anything to get over," he said. "I remember we got in the car after the round and Wayne goes dead silent; no one is saying a word. I turned around, and I'm, like, 'Guys, it's just a golf tournament.' "

Perhaps Johnson's response has a little something to do with his having been there, done that, albeit on a smaller stage. It wasn't the first time he had three-jacked from 12 feet to lose.

Johnson still can't forget the highway robbery that occurred at a junior tournament in his native South Carolina. He was about 14 and nursing a narrow lead on the final hole over Kevin Kisner, who won the Dean & DeLuca Invitational three weeks ago and was Johnson's favorite four-ball partner in their youth. Here, Kisner picks up the thread of the story: "I blocked it in the trees; couldn't see the green. He laid up perfectly; wedged it to 12 feet. I skulled it out of the trees, hit the mound, goes up over the hill, hits the flag going 100 (mph) and it goes in."

Flustered, a young Johnson took three putts, and Kisner won by one. 

"D.J. has never let me live it down," Kisner said.

"It was exactly how he said it," Johnson said, adding, "Yeah, it was an interesting way to finish."

Add that to the list of misfortunes that Johnson, who will turn 33 on June 22, has endured. His major-championship futility included shooting a final-round 82 to blow a three-stroke lead after 54 holes at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. At the 2010 PGA Championship, Johnson appeared to be headed for a three-man playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson until he incurred a two-stroke penalty on the final hole for grounding his club in a poorly-defined bunker at Whistling Straits. He also settled for a runner-up finish at the 2011 British Open, and he held the 36-hole lead at the 2015 British Open. A Johnson did hoist the Claret Jug, but it was Zach, not Dustin.

Johnson's rare combination of power and soft hands has made him a force to be reckoned with as a professional. Perhaps the calamities he has faced have made him golf's Teflon Man. He was the one player who could endure the folly of not knowing whether he would be penalized for a possible infraction last year during the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont. 

At the par-5 fifth, Johnson stood over a 6-foot par putt, grounded his putter next to the ball and after a few practice strokes backed off as the ball moved ever so slightly. A rules official agreed that he had done nothing to make the ball move. But on the 12th tee box, Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and competitions, approached Johnson, who had built a two-shot lead, and informed him that he might be penalized a stroke under Rule 18-2/0.5. For the next two hours, major-championship golf entered the bizarro world.

“Just one more thing to add to the list, right?” Johnson later said.

Having birdied the 72nd hole to put a bow on his first major, Johnson sauntered off the 18th green, and golf’s all-time leading major winner, Jack Nicklaus, was there to congratulate him.

“I told him what you did with all that crap that they threw at you was pretty good,” Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus isn't the only one who admires Johnson's ability to stay in the present.

“This isn’t supposed to be an insult, but he’s almost a caveman,” Billy Horschel said. “He’s very simple. He’s going to hit here, hit there. If he makes a 5 on a hole, OK; go to the next hole and make 3. It’s just awesome that he has that power to just let everything roll off his back.” 

With the pending birth of his second son, Johnson had yet to arrive at Erin Hills as of late Monday. His fiancée was expected to deliver early in the week, and Johnson planned to fly to Wisconsin immediately afterward.

Having risen to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, Johnson is expected to win. Paul Azinger, a former PGA Championship winner and Fox TV analyst, predicts Johnson will repeat. Azinger noted that the fairways at Erin Hills are wider than at a typical U.S. Open layout, playing into Johnson's wheelhouse, and said 14 of the 18 holes require blind or semi-blind shots.

"He's the best at embracing something that is different and unique," Azinger said. "I think he's smarter than people think he is. They act like he's the dumbest guy on earth, and I don't believe he is. I don't believe that at all. I think he's actually pretty intelligent. He has the ability to not care about a lot of things that he shouldn't care about. That's his strength."

As for that long-ago defeat at the hands of Kisner, Johnson had the last laugh there, too. 

"We played together probably four years ago, the last day in Memphis in the last group, and he won and said, 'I got you back,' " Kisner said. "I said, 'I would trade them, if you want to trade them.' "

Johnson undoubtedly wouldn't trade the U.S. Open trophy for the world, and he'd like nothing more than to win it back.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak