Keeping Score

Johnson powers ahead at U.S. Open

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The Dustin Johnson Classic will continue for 36 more holes here at Shinnecock Hills this weekend. It should be a good show because Johnson may do more than just forge history. He’ll attempt a feat far more difficult: making four rounds at Shinnecock look semi-easy.

Johnson is halfway home to pulling off the latter at the DJC, otherwise known as the 118th United States Open. Friday, he posted a 67 and pulled so far ahead of most – but not all – of his pursuers that they’re going to need MapQuest to find him (scores).

The engraver isn’t etching Johnson’s name onto the trophy yet, because it’s never over at a U.S. Open until the last ball drops or the USGA rules that the last ball moved of its own accord. 

Plus, there’s Shinnecock, which, like some of its older members, has put its teeth in this week and proved that it still has Sharknado-level bite. Bad things happen to good golfers here. See Jordan Spieth (9 over), Rory McIlroy (10 over), Tiger Woods (10 over) or Ernie Els (17 over), all of whom missed the 36-hole cut, for details.

Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods
Dustin Johnson (left), who holds a 4-stroke lead in the U.S. Open, bids goodbye to Tiger Woods, who won’t be sticking around for the weekend.

© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
Dustin Johnson (left), who holds a 4-stroke lead in the U.S. Open, bids goodbye to Tiger Woods, who won’t be sticking around for the weekend.

I’ve seen enough to decide that Johnson is the man to beat. He’s the No. 1 golfer in the world for a reason. He already has won a U.S. Open at another beast of the East, Oakmont in 2016, and he has slept on Open leads before. Johnson is a first-ballot World Golf Hall of Famer with 18 PGA Tour wins, and he doesn’t turn 34 for another week. Plus, he owns a four-stroke lead going into the weekend.

A second U.S. Open title isn’t guaranteed, but to beat him, someone has to catch him. Scott Piercy and Charley Hoffman trail by four, and the likes of Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Tommy Fleetwood and Brooks Koepka are another shot back. But Johnson is making the Shootout at Shinnecock look like something less than a fair fight.

Johnson built his lead despite playing in the worst end of the draw: late Thursday, early Friday. Johnson caught the brunt of the first round’s gusty, blustery wind while the morning starters scooted through nearly nine holes before the wind picked up and made scoring difficult. Friday morning, he endured chilly conditions, more wind and eight holes worth of rain that varied from a fine Scottish mist to a brief pelting shower while the afternoon guys were pleasantly surprised to see the flags go limp in the middle of the round.

Johnson is the game’s biggest hitter, hands down. He also quietly has become one of the PGA Tour’s best bunker players. He holed a shot from the sand at the eighth in the opening round, turning a probable bogey into a surprising birdie. Friday, he nearly holed another one. 

Asked whether his sand skills might be underrated, Johnson answered with his stock reply, “I don’t know.” He likes to keep things simple. It saves energy, for one thing. “I feel like I’m a good bunker player,” he added matter-of-factly. “Doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks, right?”

That’s the essence of Johnson. He doesn’t worry about appearances or what-ifs. He plays the next shot or goes on to the next question or the next TV interview and doesn’t seem to worry about what went right or wrong. He keeps moving.

Tour statistics back up how good he’s gotten around the greens. Johnson, who leads the tour in scoring average, ranks eighth in scrambling and first in scrambling from inside 10 yards. He is 56th in sand saves, a stat affected by putting. 

Those results are a testament to his decision a few years back to improve his wedge play and putting by refining his technique and spending more time on them. He ranks 20th in strokes gained putting. Add a strong short game and a solid putting game to the most powerful long game in golf, and suddenly you’ve got a force who can win any major championship – and the harder the course, the better.

The most impressive thing that Johnson has done was to change his ball flight. He always played a right-to-left draw, the shot of a power player. When he began working with coach Butch Harmon, Johnson switched to a left-to-right fade, practically overnight. He shot 62 in his first tournament round as a fader and never looked back.

A golfer’s ball flight is an expression of his soul. To change it that quickly, that easily and that effectively is mind-blowing. Few golfers make such a dramatic switch, and I guarantee that nobody did it as quickly as Johnson. That’s what I mean about his innate skill and athleticism and how this Open may not be a fair fight.

Friday’s Exhibit A came at the par-3 seventh, the infamous hole that caused all the controversy in the 2004 U.S. Open when it became an unplayable firm and fast putting surface. Johnson fanned his iron shot to the right side of the green, 45 feet from the hole. The pin was middle left. His putt looked as if it would stop short, but then his ball trickled, trickled, trickled … and toppled into the cup’s left edge for a birdie. For the last 3 feet, it seemed as if the ball were wearing ice skates. It was stupid good. 

“Yeah, I knew about halfway there it was on a really good line if it would just get to the hole,” Johnson said. “I guess it dropped right in the front door.”

Woods, who was paired with Johnson, said he seemed to be in complete control. 

“He’s hitting the ball so flush and so solid,” Woods said. “Every putt looked like it was going in.”

Justin Thomas, the third member of the pairing and the guy whose four-week reign at No. 1 in the world ranking ended when Johnson won in Memphis last week, agreed that Johnson is playing well but thought that Johnson benefitted from a couple of breaks.

Besides the bunker shot and the long putt at the seventh – breaks that Johnson made for himself – there was the ball-search episode Thursday. Johnson’s errant drive at the sixth vanished into thick fescue. A search-and-rescue mission was mounted. Fox Sports later showed a graphic that counted 29 searchers, including Woods, and several media members. 

The USGA’s proposed rules changes for 2019 include shortening the allowable search time for a lost ball from five minutes to three minutes. I’m pretty sure that Johnson’s ball wasn’t found until late in the fourth search minute, and then, it was determined that the ball had been stepped on by former PGA champion Rich Beem, who was working for Sky Sports. So, Johnson got a free drop from a thick lie. He made bogey, but it could’ve been worse.

Timing. Good breaks. They add up in an Open.

“We’re all fortunate when we hit a ball offline that we have a couple more people to help look than other groups,” Thomas said. “Dustin drives the ball really well and consistent. His distance control and his irons are great. He’s a very, very underrated bunker player, and he’s putting the ball well. So, he pretty much has it all covered, I think.”

The fact that Shinnecock is playing difficult, like a U.S. Open course should, is just one more thing in Johnson’s wheelhouse.

“I like where par is a good score on every hole, no matter what club you’ve got in your hand, no matter what hole it is,” Johnson said. 

Pars are good at Shinnecock. Unless, of course, you’re chasing Johnson this weekend.

 

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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