A year ago, when Dustin Johnson led the Open Championship at St. Andrews through 36 holes, there was, among those covering 2015’s third major, a sense of anticipation – or, perhaps more accurately, dread.
This was, of course, just a month after the Irmo native and former Coastal Carolina All-American had three-putted his way to yet another major heartache at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. So while most covering golf for a living had been waiting years for a seemingly inevitable major title for the immensely talented Johnson, the most common thought was along the lines of, “how’s he going to blow this one?”
In fact, no one had to wait for the final day. Johnson struggled to a third-round 75 while others charged past him. He repeated that score in lackluster fashion the final day.
But it’s amazing what Johnson’s impressive win at the U.S. Open at Oakmont has done for him, and others. Now, the pre-tournament question isn’t, “Will Dustin come up short again?” but rather, how impressively will he win at Royal Troon.
Golf Channel analyst and former Open winner David Duval said as much during a pre-Open teleconference.
“I think now that (Johnson) has gotten out of his own way, and broke through and won the U.S. Open under really trying circumstances, it’s hard to see him not being the favorite,” he said, “for the next multiple majors, if not multiple years.”
Duval and other analysts thus outlined the pre-tournament theme for NBC’s and Golf Channel’s 50 hours of coverage from Scotland this week: having broken through on golf’s biggest stage, Johnson’s next major title could come sooner than later.
With past disappointments behind and his confidence soaring, analysts say DJ now can use his golf weapons – driving, wedge play and improved putting – to force other players to have to catch him, not vice versa.
“I’ve thought for a year or two … that he’s the most talented player there is in golf,” Duval said. “He has that weapon that is just basically unbeatable – driving the ball – and he’s improved his wedges” every year for six straight.
Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, perhaps TV’s most insightful analyst, said golf hasn’t seen such a combination since, well, a few years ago.
“The last person to drive the ball this far and also be the best wedge player on the PGA Tour was a fellow named Tiger Woods,” Chamblee said. “So it’s a rare combination … and almost unfair when you’re competing against him.”
The biggest improvement for Johnson, Chamblee said, is the boost of confidence he received from finally breaking through – that and overcoming the USGA’s badly-handled rules violation during the final round. Rather than allowing the uncertainty of a possible penalty over his ball moving on the fifth green to upset him, Johnson was the only contender who seemed unfazed by not knowing his score until after he finished.
That, Chamblee said, created a different take on the 11-time winner.
“People have criticized the mental mistakes that he’s made” in past majors – his grounded club in a bunker at the 2010 PGA, last year’s three-putted 72nd green at Chambers Bay – “(but) who else could’ve withstood the chaos on Sunday of the U.S. Open? Who else could’ve withstood that who hadn’t been through what Dustin had been through?
“It’s very hard to find anybody that didn’t stumble over themselves on the way to winning major championships, with the exception of Tiger and Jack (Nicklaus).”
Being mentioned in that company, said GC’s David Feherty, suggests Johnson could be on the verge of even bigger accomplishments.
“I don’t think Dustin Johnson’s record reflects the kind of player he is,” Feherty said, “and I’m not sure that it’s all in his fault.
“It’s a miracle that he hasn’t won more times” in majors. “He’s certainly played well enough. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were to win Open Championship or a PGA, or to be an Olympic gold medalist. … Maybe they’ll all come in a cluster. And I think that might happen for Dustin.
“He’s an extraordinarily talented young man.”
And Johnson now has the mental game to go with that. This week, instead of wondering how he might give away a major title, the question is: how might DJ take this one away from the other contenders?