PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Dustin Johnson insisted he could handle the pressure.
Three painful holes over one cringe-inducing hour at the U.S. Open on Sunday proved he couldn’t.
Instead of backing up on his youthful confidence, Johnson added his name to a long, inglorious list of final-round collapses with one of golf’s biggest prizes on the line.
Johnson walked onto Pebble Beach with a three-shot lead, hoping to win his first major. Before he’d reached the fifth hole, he’d made triple-bogey, double-bogey and bogey – a disaster of a start that made him an afterthought while the other man in his twosome, Graeme McDowell, walked away with the trophy.
Johnson shot an 11-over 82 and finished tied for eighth place.
“Playing so poorly, I still had fun today,” Johnson said. “I enjoyed playing today. You know, (I’ll) get it done next time.”
Maybe so. But he’ll walk away knowing that all he had to do was shoot 76, and he could have been the Open champ.
Instead, his day will be remembered alongside Gil Morgan’s Sunday collapse at Pebble 18 years ago, Retief Goosen’s 81 on the closing day at Pinehurst in 2005 and Aaron Baddeley’s 80 at Shinnecock in 2007.
“I felt sorry for him,” McDowell said.
Johnson, though, had only himself to blame.
His problems were self-induced and came during a three-hole stretch early in his round when Pebble is supposed to be its most vulnerable.
They began when he hit his approach shot into an awkward lie in a bunker on No. 2, then had to chip out left-handed. The ball barely squirted out, then Johnson’s fourth shot from the deep grass popped up and moved about two feet. He missed a 3-foot putt for double bogey and wound up with a 7. It was part of a triple-bogey, double-bogey, bogey stretch that sent him from 6 under to even.
His stubbornness didn’t help. Instead of playing safe and finding the fairway coming off the debacle on No. 2, Johnson hit driver on the third and watched helplessly as it landed near the 16th green. He couldn’t find the ball, had to go back to the tee and ended with a double. Then, on the drivable par-4 fourth, he hit 3-wood, and sliced it straight into the ocean.
Johnson’s 82 was the second-worst round of the day and the worst final round by a 54-hole leader since Fred McCloud’s 83 in 1911. And now, Johnson will be remembered in the same way as Morgan and the others.
“It can do that around this place,” Tiger Woods said. “Just because you are playing well it doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. This golf course, it baits you into being aggressive.”
Having solved Pebble for wins in the past two February PGA Tour stops here, Johnson was being called the new “Prince of Pebble.” That tag was gone when his Saturday night lead evaporated before the fourth tee. He failed to make a birdie in his final round, after making 11 birdies and an eagle the first three days.
Succumbing to pressure is nothing new in the U.S. Open. But Johnson appeared so relaxed and at ease on Saturday in his masterful third round. While Woods was making his back-nine charge on Saturday, Johnson was quietly matching the world’s No. 1 player. Both shot 66, but it was Johnson five shots in front of Woods heading to Sunday.
“I’m going to have to be really patient,” Johnson said Saturday night. “If I keep hitting like I’ve been hitting and putting it in the spots on the green, then I’m going to be tough to beat.”
Problem is, Johnson did none of that, bringing the rest of the field back into play with his early problems instead of pulling away.
“I think there were a number of guys that as soon as Dustin made a triple, it was a wide-open tournament,” Phil Mickelson said. “Many guys had a chance.”
Johnson shored up his game on the back, but still made bogeys at 11, 12, 16 and 17. His day was capped by a deflating three-putt par on the 18th, just before watching McDowell tap-in to win the tournament.
“We’ve all been there and it’s not a lot of fun,” McDowell said.