PINEHURST, N.C. – When Dustin Johnson says “anything can happen” on a weekend in a major, he isn’t being hackneyed.
The guy could write a doctoral thesis on the topic.
Well, maybe not, but he could certainly be the subject of any probing look at wild finishes in majors.
With a 1-under-par 69 Friday at the U.S. Open, Johnson was tied for second when he signed his scorecard at Pinehurst No. 2, but it’s debatable whether you can classify him as being in contention. That’s because he was a whopping eight shots behind Martin Kaymer halfway through the championship.
Johnson, however, knows better.
He isn’t spouting wishful thinking when he says anything can happen when pressure escalates on leaders and contenders, making synapses short-circuit, nerves misfire and hearts palpitate. He knows.
If you’ve forgotten, here’s a little of Johnson’s history with chances to win his first major:
2010 U.S. Open – Three shots ahead going into the final round at Pebble Beach, Johnson needed only two holes to squander his lead. In an awkward spot in a bunker at No. 2, he unwisely tried to swat his ball out left-handed. He made triple-bogey-7 and went on to shoot 82 as Graeme McDowell won. Johnson’s 82 was the highest score posted by the 54-hole leader of a U.S. Open in 99 years.
2010 PGA Championship – One shot ahead stepping to the tee at the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits, Johnson pushed his drive way right, into the crowd and a worn patch of earth. He ended up making a bogey, fully expecting to join Kaymer and Bubba Watson for a three-way playoff. Instead, he learned that patch of earth was actually a bunker, and he would have to take a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a hazard. He made triple bogey and walked away tied for fifth, with Kaymer going on to win.
2011 British Open – Closing in on Darren Clarke on the back nine Sunday at Royal St. Georges, Johnson was in position to reach the 14th hole in two, with a shot to the right the only play to be avoided at the par 5. He made the big mistake, sailing a 2-iron out of bounds.
So as well as Kaymer is playing, Johnson knows the trouble that lies in wait on a weekend for the leaders of a major, especially at Pinehurst No. 2.
Back at the 2005 U.S. Open here, Retief Goosen took a three-shot lead on Jason Gore and Olin Browne into the final round. None of them came close to winning the championship. Goosen collapsed with an 81, Gore with an 84 and Browne with an 80.
“As you all know, anything can happen in a U.S. Open,” Johnson told the assembled media after signing for a second consecutive 69 at Pinehurst No. 2. “This golf course is tough. If you get just a little bit off with your driver and your irons, you're going to have a long day. I've got a good game plan; I'm going to stick to it. If I keep hitting it like I am, then I'm going to keep shooting good scores.”
Johnson is playing Pinehurst No. 2 aggressively, mashing his driver with impunity around this classic Donald Ross course. He hit 10 drivers Friday, putting himself in favorable positions all morning. A sluggish putter kept him from closing the gap more on Kaymer.
“I played solid,” Johnson said. “I had a lot of good chances to make birdies and was just a little off with the putter.”
Johnson missed a 3-footer for par at the sixth hole. He was frustrated with his stroke there.
“Nothing's going wrong,” Johnson said. “My stroke feels really good. I just hit a bad putt. You can't hit them all good.”
Johnson is a giant talent. He has eight PGA Tour titles, with victories in each of his first six seasons on Tour. The only other player to do that straight out of college was Tiger Woods.
With all that talent, and all the promise he has shown, Johnson has to be considered among the best players without a major championship title. He’s coming to a crossroads that way, with his 30th birthday just nine days away.
Johnson was asked how eager he is to put himself in position on yet another Sunday with a chance to win that first major.
“I want to be there every week,” Johnson said. “It's always a good feeling. You know you're playing well, you got a lot of confidence, especially when you're right up there by the lead. After two days this week, I'm really comfortable with where I'm at, and just need to keep doing what I'm doing.”
When it comes to Sundays in majors, he’ll be looking to change the way they end in a big way.