For a while, Dustin Johnson became accustomed to contending in major championships.
In the span of eight majors from the 2009 PGA Championship through the 2011 British Open, Johnson recorded four top-10s and held a final-round lead in two majors.
He led the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by three strokes before shooting a closing 82.
He held a one-shot lead on the final hole of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits before taking a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a poorly defined bunker and missing a playoff by a couple shots.
He tied for second in the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George’s, where he was two shots behind leader Darren Clarke with five holes to play before hitting a long iron out of bounds on the par-5 14th hole.
He didn’t miss a major cut in that period and didn’t finish outside the top 40.
But it has been a while since Johnson was a factor in the final round of a major.
In the nine majors since the 2011 British Open, Johnson has a pair of top-10s – a tie for ninth in the 2012 British Open and tie for eighth in last year’s PGA Championship – and hasn’t been a threat to win. He has missed three cuts, including the Masters two months ago.
He misses the rush of the major Sunday spotlight, and may be ready to experience it again in the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course beginning Thursday.
“You have to play four really good rounds in a major. If you have one bad round, you’re out of it,” Johnson said. “But I feel like I’m right there. It’s close. It’s going to happen soon.”
Though he grew up a couple hours from Pinehurst in Columbia and believes he played No. 2 in his youth with his father, he can’t recall for sure. He made a trip to Pinehurst while a member of the Coastal Carolina squad but did not play No. 2.
He got his first look at the course with a nine-hole practice round Monday and played 18 Tuesday – the final nine with brother and caddie Austin and swing coach Butch Harmon after playing partners Keegan Bradley, Luke Donald and Chris Doak stopped after nine. Johnson plans to play nine more Wednesday.
“It’s good. I like it. It’s very difficult.” said Johnson, whose celebrated length should be a significant benefit on the long 7,562-yard par-70 layout. “I think it’s fairly generous off the tee. I’ve got a pretty good game plan off the tee and good lines that I like. Hopefully, I can dial it in going into these greens. Once you’re in the fairway, it’s no peach from there.
“It’s really difficult coming into these greens. They’re really firm and have a lot of undulation. There are certain spots on every hole where you know you have to land it, and it’s not a very big spot.”
Johnson was one of the hottest players in golf early in the 2013-14 season, when he began with top-six finishes in his first five stroke-play events, including a win in the HSBC Champions in November and a pair of seconds. He is third in PGA Tour earnings with $3.75 million in 13 events.
But a tie for seventh in the HP Byron Nelson Championship on May 18 is his only top 10 in his past seven events.
“If you look at any of the guys, it’s very tough to do,” Johnson said. “I’m making cuts and finishing in the 20s or whatever, which is not up to my standards. … I think the game is getting back to where it was. I feel I’m starting to compete a little bit more. I think this is going to be a really good week; a good test.”
Johnson is coming off a tie for 24th last week in the FedEx St. Jude Classic and a final-round 67 Sunday. He opened with rounds of 68 and 67 before falling out of contention with a 75 on Saturday.
“I putted horrendous on Saturday,” Johnson said. “The (ball-striking) has been OK. I think it has gotten a lot better in the last couple days. I hit it better on Sunday, and I’m starting to drive it real well.
“The last two days I’ve driven it real well out here. And, of course, if I’m driving it well out here I’m going to make good scores. Hopefully, I’ll hit my irons where I’m looking.”
In addition to walking the final eight holes with Johnson in his practice round, Harmon spent a considerable amount of time with him on the range afterward, working primarily on Johnson’s posture so he can get through the ball a little better.
“He was a little shaky the last few weeks. He struggled with some different types of shots,” Harmon said. “He played well on the course today and had a very good practice session. He’s feeling good about what he’s doing, and that’s the important part.
“This course lets you be aggressive if you’re driving good, and he’s driving the ball beautifully. So, I think the big thing now is to get comfortable with the pitches and chips around the greens and the various shots you have to play.”
After taking a month off following a missed cut at the Masters, Johnson is playing his sixth consecutive event without a week off. Though with the past five events in Florida, Texas, Ohio and Tennessee, Johnson has spent two nights at his home in Jupiter, Fla., before flying to the next event in four of the five weeks, with this week being the exception.
“I don’t mind playing a lot in a row,” said Johnson, who plans to follow the U.S. Open with at least two weeks off, during which he’ll celebrate his 30th birthday. “… So I got to sleep in my bed for two nights so it doesn’t seem like I’ve been on this long of a stretch.”