ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – If the line from the cult classic movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou” is correct and you can only have painful association with memories, then Dustin Johnson stands as a rigid exception to the ghosts of history.
What else would explain the 31-year-old’s ability to dust himself off time and time again, despite the cruelest twists of fate?
After bad starts (2010 U.S. Open) and bad decisions (2010 PGA Championship) and embarrassingly bad greens (2015 U.S. Open), the game’s preeminent bomber has regularly sidestepped the inevitable pity party and mental baggage that accompanies loss.
Through two windswept days on the Old Course this week, he’s pounded his way to a one-stroke lead with no regard to what transpired less than a month ago at Chambers Bay.
“It was a little disappointing not to get in the playoff at least [at the U.S. Open], but I mean I don't really dwell in the past too much,” said Johnson, who forged his advantage at the Open Championship through a wet and frigid wind until play was halted for the day with him on the 14th hole. “You can't really change it, so there's no reason to worry about it.”
For those who would dismiss Johnson’s take as psychological hokum, consider the insight from the man whose job it is to keep him on the competitive straight and narrow.
“We talked about it a couple minutes and that was it,” Johnson’s swing coach Butch Harmon said of his man’s three-putt at the last at Chambers Bay to finish a stroke behind Jordan Spieth. “Nothing stays with him.”
It only makes sense that Harmon would use a football analogy to describe a player who, in another life, may well have made a living on the gridiron instead of the links.
“He’s like a linebacker in the NFL,” Harmon figured. “The last play never happened, because they are always getting beat and just need to move on.”
Move on like he did at the 2010 U.S. Open after he turned a three-stroke 54-hole lead into a tie for eighth place with a closing 82; and at the PGA Championship later that year when he squandered his chance at major glory by grounding his club in one of Whistling Straits’ multi-purpose bunkers and incurring a two-stroke penalty.
Johnson rebounded from those disappointments by winning the BMW Championship a month later.
In 2011, he was within two strokes of eventual winner Darren Clarke at the Open Championship when he launched his second shot at the par-5 14th hole closer to the adjacent Prince’s course than Royal St. George’s. True to form, he won The Barclays a month later as if he were immune to the type of scar tissue that others endure.
Where others take solace in the educational properties of hard times, Johnson appears above that type of psychological handicapping.
Maybe that emotional firewall is born from his unique physical gifts, a skillset that leaves both rivals and the venerable Old Course in awe.
When you can split “bunkers at about 380 yards,” as Spieth explained on Thursday, it’s easier to take the occasional haymaker from fate.
It is worth noting that for all of the focus on DJ’s prodigious power, which at times seems to transcend the laws of physics, it may well be his short game that will ultimately decide his Grand Slam fate.
While it was his driver that sent his golf ball to within 20 paces of the par-4 10th green, it was a surprisingly soft touch that settled that same ball just inches from the hole for birdie.
The same putting stroke that produced that ill-timed three-jack on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay rolled in impressive early birdie attempts at the fourth and seventh holes.
“I feel great. I’m in a good spot,” he said of his abbreviated 3-under round that will resume at 7 a.m. on Saturday, thanks to an early storm on Friday that forced a delay of more than three hours.
As Johnson prepared to set out for a blustery round that would inevitably leak into Saturday morning, Harmon mused, “Watch this, he’ll hit 2-iron [off the first tee] and it will never get off the ground,” he smiled.
As his tee shot sliced low through a cold wind it seemed to be a fitting metaphor for Johnson. Through victory and heartbreaking defeat, the game’s most powerful enigma never seems to be affected by the winds of turmoil.