DORAL, Fla. – Dustin Johnson didn’t start the season the way he wanted, not with only one decent chance at winning.
His start at the Cadillac Championship wasn’t much better.
On his opening tee shot Thursday at Doral, his drive sailed to the right and struck a spectator in the head. Turns out it was his grandfather, Art Whisnant, a former basketball star at South Carolina.
Suddenly, everything is looking up.
Johnson hit his stride and found his swagger Saturday on the back nine of the Blue Monster, shooting a 31 to emerge from a crowd of top players with a 7-under 65 and a two-shot lead going into the final round.
The 26-year-old American hit what he called a “bunt drive” that went 310 yards on the 17th, leaving him a wedge into 2 feet. That was the last of his eight birdies, and put him atop the leaderboard. A short time later, after Nick Watney missed two short birdie putts and put his tee shot into the water on No. 18, Johnson had the lead to himself.
“I played well today – drove it well, putt it well, hit the ball well,” Johnson said. “So I’m going to have to do that again tomorrow.”
One look at the guys behind him makes that clear.
Johnson was at 13-under 203, although seven players were within three shots of him, none lower than No. 31 in the world.
That group does not include Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who finished before the leaders teed off and remain out of the mix. The surprise is that it doesn’t include Martin Kaymer, either. The new No. 1 was in the final group with Hunter Mahan, one shot out of the lead, until he took double bogey from the water on the third hole and struggled to a 74. Kaymer was seven shots back.
Johnson will play in the final group with Luke Donald, who took bogey on the final hole for a 66. Even so, Donald is in good position to capture a second straight World Golf Championship, and a victory could be enough to make him No. 2 in the world.
Watney, who had to settle for a 68 after his double bogey on the 18th, and Matt Kuchar (68) were with Donald at 11-under 205.
Adam Scott is making fast friends with his long putter. He had a 68 and was in the group another shot behind that included Francesco Molinari, Rory McIlroy and Mahan, who didn’t make a par over the last six holes – two birdies, four bogeys – and shot 71.
All of them will be chasing Johnson, who has a 54-hole lead for the first time other than at Pebble Beach. He won twice at Pebble in the regular PGA Tour event, but is perhaps more famous for losing a three-shot lead at the U.S. Open last summer when he shot 82.
For all his power, Johnson is a threat this week because of his putting.
He didn’t work on it once during the cold, rainy winter in South Carolina, and really didn’t put much attention on it earlier this year until after he lost in the first round of the Match Play Championship two weeks ago.
“I finally feel comfortable with the putter, so things are going a little better,” Johnson said.
He also got some help from swing coach Butch Harmon – who also works with Watney – on Saturday morning. Johnson asked him to check on his driver and his wedges, and then he put them to good use.
Johnson, considered to have the most potential of America’s young crop of players, is known for his audacious tee shots. He went from that “bunt drive” on the 17th to “swinging has hard as I could” on the 18th, a 326-yard blast that left him only a wedge to the green.
And that tee shot on Thursday that nailed his grandfather?
“Yeah, that was a hard drive,” he said, smiling. “He said it hit him on the fly, but it couldn’t have.”
For one thing, his grandfather wasn’t hurt.
Johnson could move into the top 10 in the world for the first time in his career. Donald, who moved to No. 3 with his win at the Match Play, could go all the way to No. 2, and it wouldn’t surprise him.
“I’m certainly playing very good golf right now, some of the best I’ve ever played,” said Donald, who ran off three birdies in a four-hole stretch around the turn and was bogey-free until a tee shot to the right, leaving him little chance of reaching the 18th green.
Few other contenders were pleased, mainly because of how they finished.
Watney looked as though he might have a two-shot lead, and instead was two shots behind. Molinari, who won the World Golf Championship in Shanghai in November, nearly went in the water on the last and took bogey.
Mahan kept in front most of the way until failing to birdie the par 5s on the back nine, and finishing with back-to-back bogeys.
“Out here, you hit it in the wrong place, you have a terrible angle to the hole and in the Bermuda rough, you can get a good lie or a bad lie,” he said. “Just didn’t make good swings and made some bad putts.”
Woods and Mickelson, playing for the third straight day together, didn’t inspire. Woods switched back to a mallet putter – the same one he tried in Australia last year – and the best he could manage was a 2-under 70 that left him 11 shots behind. Mickelson had a sloppy double bogey on the 14th and wound up with a 72, putting him at even-par 216.
Woods did not comment after his round. He told a tour official he was going to the range, but instead headed to the parking lot.