Dustin Johnson’s final competitive stroke before taking aim at winning his first major was a thunderbolt out of the blue. He holed a 21-foot chip in his weather-delayed final-round in Memphis last week for a 63 and another top-five finish on the PGA Tour.
Johnson, ludicrously long off the tee, is ranked 105th on the tour around the greens, which is the short answer for why he has eight top-five finishes, but no victories, in 20 starts since his second-place finish at last year’s U.S. Open.
Johnson has strung together a dozen top-10 finishes like beads on a necklace since his inglorious defeat last year at Chambers Bay, suggesting he has more than a prayer to win the 116th U.S. Open beginning Thursday at Oakmont Country Club. But he has to be sharper around and on the greens.
Johnson is 160th on the tour inside 10 feet this season, raising the question: Was his three-putt on the final hole at Chambers Bay, which left him one stroke behind the winner, Jordan Spieth, a referendum on the course’s brown, bumpy greens or on his brown thumb with his putter?
In the days leading up to the year’s second major, Johnson described his game as “really good” and said, “I feel like I got control over all my clubs.”
He added, “I think the only thing that’s really held me back from winning a bunch of times this year is making a few more putts.”
He could have been parroting Adam Scott before Scott changed the narrative with a victory at the 2013 Masters. Or Angel Cabrera, who rewrote his well-worn script in 2007, the last time the Open was held at Oakmont, by winning the first of his two majors with great ball-striking and putting that was merely good enough. After prevailing with a 5-over 285, Cabrera memorably said: “Most of the time I’m not making any putts, but this week it was like everybody was missing the putts. So that gave me an advantage.”
The greens are expected to be faster than a blink this week. If nobody can putt on them, everybody can contend. Johnson, who averages 309.5 yards off the tee, used his driver on seven holes, including the 667-yard par-5 12th, when he played the course for the first time this month. He has the strength to ride the bucking bronco that is Oakmont into the winner’s circle, but does he have the fortitude?
Johnson told reporters in Memphis that he was comfortable at Oakmont and that he shot “a good score” in his first 18-hole practice round on the course. “I think it sets up well for me,” he said.
What course doesn’t? Johnson, 31, had Pebble Beach on the ropes at the 2010 Open before the course scored a final-round knockout. He dropped from the lead with a closing 82. Two months later, he missed a playoff at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits after he was penalized for grounding his club in a fairway bunker on the 72nd hole.
Johnson was a stroke off the lead in the last round of the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George’s when he hit a long iron out-of-bounds on a par 5. He led last year’s British Open at the halfway point, before wild winds and the Old Course knocked him down. At one point during the final round of this year’s Masters, Johnson was a stroke off the lead. He tied for fourth.
“He’s been so close so many times,” Spieth said at the Memorial Tournament. “I believe he'll be there. It will happen soon with Dustin.”
Spieth added: “If you take a poll of tour players, they believe he'll win the major in the next couple years. I would say well over half of them will believe that.”
If not for Johnson’s miss of a 3-foot birdie try at Chambers Bay, he and Spieth might be tied with the world’s No. 1-ranked player, Jason Day, with one major apiece, three behind the world No. 3, Rory McIlroy, and four behind Phil Mickelson, who was 33 when he won his first.
Spieth had his third major crown in his grasp at the Masters in April. Ahead by five strokes with nine holes to play, he lost his composure and gave up the lead for good with two balls hit into the water on the 12th hole.
Spieth was asked at the Memorial which was the tougher way to lose a major: with two bad swings on the 12th hole at Augusta National or with two missed putts on the 72nd hole like Johnson at Chambers Bay?
“I thought that maybe what I had to go through is easier,” Spieth said.
Johnson talks as if he is ready to win a major. But until he turns his belief in himself into action, the hole in his record will be the heckler he cannot escape.