SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – For two months running now, Dustin Johnson has been “that guy.”
The guy who took a three-shot lead into the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June and gave it all back on the second hole he played that day. The guy who proceeded to shoot himself all the way out of contention with a double-bogey on the hole after that. The same guy everyone thought was on the cusp of superstardom and would need months to get over the setback.
So guess what?
That guy is back on the leaderboard at the PGA Championship. And instead of having nightmares, he’s giving them.
“Dwelling on it can’t help anything,” said Johnson, a man of very few words. “I’ve got this tournament to think about and I always try to focus on what I’m doing at the moment – not what I did in the past.”
Johnson is known as one of the biggest hitters on the tour, but at Whistling Straits, he’s been longer than long. In Friday’s second round, Johnson hit driver at the 355-yard, par-4 sixth and airmailed it over the back of the green, nearly conking Chad Campbell and Ross Fisher, who were playing in the group ahead and loitering in what they assumed was safe territory.
“Welcome to my world,” said Johnson’s caddie, Bobby Brown. “I’m just glad nobody got hurt.”
Johnson, who should be used to that kind of thing by now, added sheepishly, “I didn’t expect to hit to that far.”
But as Brown suggested, that’s not entirely true.
On the preceding hole, the 598-yard, par-5 fifth, Johnson cut off the dogleg and had 149 yards left—a pitching wedge for him – and made eagle. No surprise. A day earlier, Johnson left himself a sand wedge.
At the 221-yard, par-3 seventh, Johnson hit 8-iron and drilled that over that green, too.
“It’s straight downwind, so it’s tough to judge,” he explained. “I mean, it’s really tough to stand back there at 218 or whatever it was to the hole, and say it’s a 9-iron.”
Length is one reason top players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have been touting Johnson for years, but hardly the only one. The long ball grabs everyone’s attention, but his short game was good enough, even in college, that he ranked near the top in saving shots around the green for two years in a row.
In fact, Johnson has an advanced degree in the subject.
“I’ve always had pretty good hands. I play with Phil a lot,” Johnson said about practice rounds with Mickelson, often for serious stakes. “If you don’t get up and down, you’re reaching for your wallet.”
Plus, the 26-year-old is so low-key, even stuck in the scariest places on the toughest courses, that the temptation is to check him for a pulse. Johnson has won three times since his rookie season in 2008, including the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am the last two years – which may be why his collapse at the U.S. Open caught so many people by surprise.
He’s got the makeup of a major champion, lacking only a trophy to prove it.
“This week, I’m just looking for – I’m not looking ahead until Sunday. All I can do is focus on tomorrow and get ready as best I can,” he said.
Johnson is one of those guys who doesn’t like to talk about unfinished business, even to those who know him best. He’s in the running for a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, but good luck getting him to acknowledge something beyond, “My golf will take care of that.”
Brown knows better.
He knows Johnson is that way about almost everything, so he cautions against assuming that just because you don’t see the fire in his eyes, the pilot light is flickering on low.
“He’s got a lot to play for this weekend, whether he says so or not,” Brown said. “But we haven’t even talked about it, honestly. He never said two words about it when he played a practice round with Corey (Pavin, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain) and he was invited to that (team) barbecue the other night
“All he said,” the caddie added, shaking his head, “is that they had great food.”