So who was the first person he bumped into on the putting green?
Justin Rose, of course.
No matter where he looks, no matter where he goes in this game, there is no escaping failure.
“You’re not going to win every time,” Johnson said Tuesday after enduring a 20-minute inquisition on the 82 he shot in the final round of the U.S. Open. “I had three really good rounds. And I had a bad Sunday.”
A week before the U.S. Open, Robert Garrigus stood on the 18th hole of the TPC Southwind unaware he had a three-shot lead. He chopped his way into the water and out of the trees for a triple bogey, then was eliminated in a playoff.
A week after the U.S. Open, Rose took a three-shot lead into the final round of the Travelers Championship. Without warning, a guy looking to win his second straight PGA Tour title looked more like someone about to miss the cut in his 22nd consecutive tournament. Rose closed with a 75, nearly six shots above the average score, including a 39 on the back nine.
Johnson and Rose chatted for only a few minutes. There wasn’t much to say.
“It’s gonna happen,” Johnson said.
They at least are in good company.
Johnson’s final round of 82 was the highest in the U.S. Open by a 54-hole leader since Fred McLeod shot 83 at Chicago Golf Club in 1911. It was Johnson’s worse score as a professional. But, ultimately, it was just a number. If he had made that 2-foot birdie putt on the last hole, he would have shot 81. Graeme McDowell still gets the trophy.
Five years ago, Retief Goosen had a three-shot lead going into the final round at Pinehurst No. 2 and shot 81.
Tiger Woods won his first PGA Championship in 1999 at Medinah after a spirited duel with Sergio Garcia. Forgotten is that Woods began the final round in a tie for the lead with Mike Weir, who shot an 80.
Weir won his first PGA Tour event a week later. He has a locker upstairs at Augusta National, a seat at the table each year at the Masters for the Champions Dinner.
“It happens,” Woods said. “And just because it happened doesn’t mean that you can’t ever win again. If he has the talent and the game to give himself that type of lead at a U.S. Open, there’s no reason why he can’t do that again and finish it off. It’s just a matter of picking yourself up and doing it all over again.”
Johnson is not the type to dwell on much.
The only shot out of the seven he took on the second hole – a triple bogey that erased a lead he had spent three rounds building – was the wedge he hit from the middle of the fairway that caught the edge of the bunker and left him little choice but to take a hack left-handed. He thinks now he should have been more aggressive, gone at the flag, left himself a 10-foot birdie.
“It might have been different,” he said.
He’ll never know. The triple bogey was followed by a driver that vanished into a hazard, leading to double bogey. Then came a hybrid that sailed too far right, over the cliff and toward the ocean for a bogey. He says the disappointment didn’t last long.
“It was gone when I left California,” Johnson said. “It was a tough day, but golfers have tough days, and it’s how quickly you can get over them that’s the best part.”
That’s what Johnson is about to find out.
Of all the phone calls he received, the most surprising came from Norman, perhaps because few others could speak from such experience. Norman is as famous for the majors he lost as the two British Opens he won. And his popularity soared by the grace in which he handled defeated, whether it was the 78 he shot in the final round of the 1996 Masters, or the 76 he shot in the last round of the 1986 PGA Championship, when Bob Tway holed out a bunker shot to win on the last hole.
“All of them told me that they learned more from times that they’d lose than they did from when they’d win,” Johnson said. “Golf is a learning process, nonstop. There’s a lot of things I can take from that Sunday.”
Tom Watson had a chance to win his first major in the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. He shot 41 on the back nine for a 78 and tied for fifth. A year later, he was holding the claret jug at Carnoustie.
The spotlight won’t leave him anytime soon. The pairings for the AT&T National came out on Tuesday, and Johnson will be playing with Woods, the defending champion, along with Davis Love III.
Meanwhile, Johnson is trying his hand in another sport.
Johnson, Pat Perez and a couple of buddies pitched in to buy a thoroughbred that is training at Hollywood Park. The name of the horse is “Bling Boy,” although an informal meeting was planned for Tuesday night to find their own name for it.
“It’s just something that should be a lot of fun,” Johnson said. “He might be (bad). He might be pretty good. Who knows? It’s not like you can talk to them.”
Johnson hopes to get home from Europe next month in time to see the horse race at Del Mar.
Of particular interest will be how he fares in the homestretch.