News & Opinion

Johnson shrugs off game’s misfortunes

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Anger on a golf course. Dustin Johnson ponders the concept, but not for long.

“It's just something I've never done,” he said. “I don't like the way it looks. I don't like when other people do it. So, I was taught at a young age that you don't do that.… I just never have. I've hit plenty of bad shots, so why get mad at it?”

Few people in the game have known the troubles that Johnson has seen. Few have had more reason to curse the gods, kick the dog or lose their … spit. And while attention this week at Pebble Beach focuses on Tiger Woods and his record-shattering U.S. Open in 2000, the “Ballad of Dustin Johnson,” published in 2010, deserves equal time.

Dustin Johnson, US Open
Dustin Johnson, practicing Wednesday from a bunker at Pebble Beach’s 12th hole, has weathered his share of storms at major championships.

© USGA/MICHAEL REAVES
Dustin Johnson, practicing Wednesday from a bunker at Pebble Beach’s 12th hole, has weathered his share of storms at major championships.

He was 25 years old, building reputation, chasing the major-championship dream. And after a spectacular third-round 66, Johnson came to the 55th hole on Sunday at Pebble Beach with a three-shot lead. The Fat Lady was humming.

What happened next was the stuff for which multicar pileups are made. On the 56th hole, the par-4 second, he faced an awkward shot from a greenside bunker. Without pause, he took a stance and swiped at it left-handed, and the ball dribbled a few feet. He tried again from the conventional side, and the ball squirted right.

He bled some more, missing a 3-foot putt, and wound up with a Mickey Mantle: a triple-bogey 7. Then came a double at No. 3 and a bogey at No. 4. Four holes into his U.S. Open coronation, Johnson was 6 over par. His three-stroke lead had warped into a three-stroke deficit. Greg Norman was singing.

Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell went on to a historic victory, while Johnson went on to an 82. The Monterey meltdown was biblical. Anger? That was the least of it.

Yet, here we are nine years later. Johnson is the No. 2 player in the world, with tenure as No. 1. He has reputation. He has won a major championship, the 2016 U.S. Open, and he has good reason to feel that Pebble Beach owes him.

But here’s the thing about the tall, cool South Carolinian: he doesn’t stew; doesn’t whimper; doesn’t regret. Why? He moves on.

“It was a good week; I played really well [in 2010],” said Johnson, who turns 35 on June 22. “First time having a lead in a major, got off to a fairly good start. I hit two shots on the green on 1, made a nice two-putt. And hit it right down the middle on 2, had a wedge in.

“And it went downhill from there. But it was a good experience. I learned a lot from it. And then came right back and had a really good showing in the PGA later that year. I was in the final group again. Played really well. Unfortunate I got a one-stroke penalty there on 18, but it happens.”

It happens, and most remarkably, it happens again. Just weeks after a Sunday to crush the mortal soul, Johnson suffered a second nightmare at Whistling Straits. He was in the mix again, headed for a PGA playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson, once more on the cusp of his first major.

But the threesome became a twosome when PGA officials assessed Johnson a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the final hole of regulation. Repeat: He grounded the club; he didn’t throw it.

Johnson looks back on those tumultuous events with the same even keel that he demonstrated at the time. Disappointed, sure … “But I did the right things,” Johnson said. “I played well. [Nick] Watney kind of went through the same thing I'd just gone through. You kind of felt for him because he was playing well. I think he had a couple-shot lead, and he kind of had the same thing that I just went through at the U.S. Open.

“But it's just one of those things. You try to learn from it and get better, and I felt like I did that.”

The Heartbreak Kid had more tribulation from which to learn. His three-putt on the 72nd green at Chambers Bay handed Jordan Spieth the 2015 U.S. Open. A year later, his ball moved a dimple on the No. 5 green at Oakmont. The USGA left him and everyone else hanging until the end, handing Johnson a one-shot penalty when he turned in his card.

Finally, there was no room for anger, just plenty of room for the penalty. Johnson still won his U.S. Open, with three shots to spare. Now he is back at Pebble Beach, with a resume that’s hard to ignore.

Johnson finished runner-up in this year’s first two majors. He has two career wins (2009 and 2010), two T-2s (2014 and 2018) and three other top-5s at the AT&T Pebble Beach. And he has three rounds of a U.S. Open here that were good enough to win in 2010. If you think he’s going to let that Sunday bother him, think again.

“You try not to think about it, but you’ve kind of just got to laugh,” Johnson said. “Yeah, where it ended up [on No. 2], it was just unlucky… I hit a bad shot, though, period. I had a wedge in that shouldn't have missed the green … and then compounded it on the next hole.

“But even with all that, going into the back nine, I still had a good chance to win.”

Nine years later, he’s got a good chance again.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD