SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Prowling around Whistling Straits, Dustin Johnson doesn’t look and sound like a player burdened by his inglorious history here.
Before the opening round of the PGA Championship, Johnson’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, suggested that his prized pupil scale it back on his opening hole, the short 10th, and get into position with a 2-iron.
“No, I’m gonna send it and drive the green,” Johnson woofed. “I’m gonna send it all day.”
He ended up opting for a 3-wood that set up an opening birdie, but his message was clear: Another layer of major-championship scar tissue wasn’t going to stop Johnson from what he does best.
Attack, attack, attack.
Time and time again Thursday he wailed away on driver, pounding tee shots into the throats of the fairways and setting up short birdie looks on his way to yet another lead in a major. His opening 6-under 66 was his best round ever at Pete Dye’s masterpiece, a round that surely stirred the golf gods.
There’s no hiding from the redemption storyline, not this week, not after what happened two months ago at Chambers Bay and what happened here at Whistling Straits in 2010.
Johnson isn’t one for introspection, especially not in a news-conference setting, and when he was asked about his 72nd-hole bunker gaffe (over and over again), he replied with a grin: “I don’t really think about it unless someone asks me the question.”
Though Johnson might not say it publicly, there’s a sense that this place owes him.
At least he doesn’t have to worry about making the same mistake. A spectator grandstand now covers that sandy, trampled-down area, and on Thursday, when he played the hole in competition for the first time since, he bludgeoned a 313-yarder that sailed over the bunker complex down the left – a ridiculous line the rest of the field can’t even consider.
Did he pull it? Sure. Did he get away with it? You bet. Oh, what he would have given for a prodigious pop like that 1,824 days ago.
“Right now,” Jason Day said, “he’s putting himself in positions where 95 or 99 percent of the players that are playing this week aren’t there.”
Another example: On the 489-yard fourth hole, and with the wind whipping into his face, Johnson ripped a 337-yard drive down the left side that left him only a sand wedge into the green. He made birdie.
“That’s just freakish to be able to do that,” Day said.
On the fifth, a dogleg-right par 5 that looks as though it was imported from South Florida, Johnson aimed at a row of lights in the distance and sent his drive at least 50 yards right of his fellow playing competitors, Day and Rickie Fowler, both of whom are long hitters. It didn’t work out – Johnson’s tee ball was knocked down by the wind and wound up in the fescue – but he didn’t catch all of it, either. He still made a routine par.
Indeed, Johnson’s 66 in increasingly difficult conditions was about the worst score he could have shot on Day 1, considering the number of putts inside 15 feet that didn’t drop. Overall, he averaged 312 yards off the tee, hit 15 greens and was only in trouble once, on the par-3 third, when he failed to get up-and-down from left of the green.
It was his third consecutive first-round lead at a major, the first time a player has completed that hat trick since 1958.
“Today was pretty easy, I have to say,” he said afterward.
But this has also been the easy part, at least lately.
In Johnson's last six major starts, he’s a combined 37 under par with a 67.9 scoring average in Rounds 1 and 2.
Over the last two rounds? A scoring average that is nearly four shots higher (71.8), with a cumulative score of 6 over par.
The most curious case came last month at St. Andrews, where he opened up a one-shot lead at the halfway point, but went 75-75 over the last two days and faded to 49th.
“I know I was leading after two rounds,” he said, “but I didn’t feel like I was playing that good of golf. I wasn’t too comfortable with my swing. I wasn’t hitting the shots that I wanted to hit. I didn’t feel like I was too much in control.”
The same feeling existed last week at Firestone, a venue that should fit Johnson’s eye, for it rewards good driving. But he struggled off the tee and shot 11 over on the weekend, plummeting out of contention.
With Harmon’s help, Johnson tweaked his takeaway – he was picking up the club to the outside – and before long was back to the bombs-away approach that makes him the game’s most tantalizing tease.
Will another torrid start lead to his first major title, to a redemption story for the ages?
Johnson wasn’t ready to even consider the possibility. No outright first-round leader at the PGA has gone on to win since 1983, and besides, he knows better than most the potential trouble that lurks around every dune and bunker here.
“It’s only the first round,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of golf to play.”