PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Dustin Johnson wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
That’s always the threat on the 18th tee box on a Sunday afternoon at Pebble Beach. A man’s soul gets stripped bare walking this hole with a tournament on the line. The pressure pounds on a player’s psyche here with the same fury as the surf upon the rugged shoreline that abuts the fairway. There’s no faking it when the hard questions are asked in this demanding finish.
That’s what makes you believe Johnson, 25, has officially arrived as the world’s most promising twentysomething star.
You don’t win back-to-back at Pebble Beach without being a special talent.
Sam Snead (1937-38), Cary Middlecoff (1955-56), Jack Nicklaus (1972-73), Tom Watson (1977-78) and Mark O’Meara (1989-90) are the only other players to achieve what Johnson did Sunday with his successful title defense.
You might have wondered when Johnson made his first PGA Tour title a Fall Finish event as a rookie two years ago. Who did he really beat? You might have wondered when he didn’t have to play the final round and was proclaimed the champ after 54 rain-soaked holes at Pebble Beach last year. Would he have survived the finish? There’s no wondering now, not after the way Johnson kept his composure Sunday with all hell breaking loose around him in a tumultuous finale.
Tied for the lead at the 18th tee, Johnson striped his drive 288 yards through the wind and into the middle of that narrow fairway. After a long, nervy wait to go for the green in two, he steered a 3-iron into the front, right greenside bunker. From there, he got up and down for birdie to give him a victory in each of his first three seasons on the PGA Tour.
In a year that’s been witness to so many lay ups with titles on the line, Johnson won aggressively and fearlessly.
“Obviously I wasn’t playing the way I wanted to play today, but I was still right there,” Johnson said. “Nothing I had done all day mattered until . . . The only thing that mattered was that hole.”
Johnson’s caddie, Bobby Brown, is more impressed by Johnson’s head than he is by Johnson’s considerable skill.
“I know I’m biased, but I tell you what, this kid is special,” said Brown, who has caddied for all three of Johnson’s victories. “I can’t believe it’s taken so long for people to catch onto him the way he hits the ball.”
It isn’t just the way the long-hitting Johnson strikes the ball. It’s the way the kid from South Carolina handles pressure. It’s the way he managed himself when it looked like this was destined to be a tournament somebody would blow at the end.
Johnson made double bogey at the ninth hole, missing a 2-footer for bogey. He lost a one-shot lead to Paul Goydos there.
“Stuff happens,” Johnson said. “You can’t let it bother you.”
Though he managed a par to regain the lead at the 14th, the nightmares he watched unfold there were potentially unnerving.
The 14th is where Bryce Molder melted down. Johnson watched it all in front of him from back in the middle of the fairway. He stood there for what seemed like forever watching Molder hike back and forth across the green making quadruple-bogey 9.
“We tried not to watch,” Brown said.
Moments later, Johnson watched Goydos do the same in his pairing. With three pitches and three putts, Goydos made a 9 there, too.
“Dustin might have won this tournament with his head,” Brown said.
Johnson’s power captivates us, but veterans on Tour have seen there’s more to his game. Cubby Burke, the long-time caddie to Davis Love III, pulled Brown aside at the Frys.com Open at Grayhawk during Johnson’s rookie year. Burke was on Cameron Beckman’s bag in a pairing with Johnson.
“Dustin is 25 going on 45,” Brown said. “He never gets upset. That’s what Cubby told me. He said, ‘This kid gets it.’ Here’s a caddie who’s been out here for 25 years and has seen it all. It made me feel good about who I’m working for.
“Dustin gets it as far as attitude. When all hell breaks loose, some guys can go the other way and let it get them down. Every time this kid does something I think will get him mad, he just looks at me, and before I can say anthing, he says, ‘I’m all right man, I’m all right.’”
That’s what Johnson told Brown Sunday after he blew a 7-iron into a back bunker at the 17th hole. He would lose his one-shot lead there.
A drunken fan screamed out in Johnson’s back swing on the tee, but Johnson didn’t blame his errant shot on it. He never mentioned it until asked. The shot left him in an awkward down slope. He blasted 25 feet past and missed the putt for par.
With Johnson walking to the 18th tee, you couldn’t help wondering what doubts might be pounding at the door to his brain.
Johnson, though, looked undeterred, never hesitating to unsheath his driver. His rocket down the middle of the fairway with so much on the line might be the shot of his young life. It set up the most important victory of his career, a title that ought to make him among the favorites when the U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach this summer.
Johnson seems completely comfortable stepping up in class. He sounds like a man who welcomes larger moments and larger victories.
“As long as I keep playing the way I’m playing, I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do,” he said. “It’s all up to me.”
Count Brown among the believers.
“Don’t let that laid back attitude fool you,” Brown said. “Dustin burns with fire inside. He’s got some fire in his belly. There’s going to be a changing of the guard here sooner or later, isn’t there? Why not nominate him. He’s got all the tools. I would think he’s only going to get better.”