DJ Still Has Time on His Side for Major Breakthrough

Dustin Johnson maintains an even keel even as he yearns for his first major championship victory. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)
Dustin Johnson maintains an even keel even as he yearns for his first major championship victory. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – Of all the subplots heading into the 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, the story of Dustin Johnson’s quest to break through the major-championship “grass ceiling” might be the most compelling.

Phil Mickelson’s quest to win his first U.S. Open after six runner-up finishes evokes a much stronger emotional response, but Johnson’s near-misses in majors, including last year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, stir curiosity due to their ignominious details and his overwhelming natural talent.

At just about every tournament stop leading up to this week’s championship, Johnson has had to review the details of his three-putt from 13 feet on the 72nd green at Chambers Bay that enabled Jordan Spieth to claim a one-stroke victory. It might have been his best opportunity to date to bring his resume more in line with his ability, but instead it fueled more speculation about whether he could summon the necessary intangibles to add a major to his nine PGA Tour wins.

Such is the burden of being supremely gifted.

At No. 6 in the world and coming off a final-round 63 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic for his sixth top-five finish of the year, Johnson is naturally among the favorites at Oakmont. A tie for fourth two years ago and his runner-up last year also put him on the radar.

Now 31, time is still on his side, even if karma hasn’t been.

In 2010, Johnson surrendered a three-stroke lead at Pebble Beach with a final-round 82 that included a horrible break – a lie near the second green in tall grass that led to a near-whiff and a crushing triple bogey. Later that year, he incurred a controversial two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the last hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. And then in 2011, he came out of a 2-iron approach on the 14th hole at Royal St. George’s that sailed out of bounds, costing him The Open Championship.

The game’s aficionados wonder aloud if Johnson, for all his remarkable athletic talent, will ever win a major, forgetting that Mickelson was 33 before he broke through in the 2004 Masters.

Johnson blocks out all the talk.

“It's all about just putting myself in position, giving myself a chance to win on Sunday, coming down the back nine,” he said, adding that Sunday hasn’t been the problem. “I feel like my game, in those situations, has held up just fine the past few times I've been in this situation.”

The reason Johnson is on everyone’s watch list is because he always seems to be hanging around. Well, that and his ability to punish a golf ball.

“I think that Dustin Johnson is arguably the most talented player on the PGA Tour,” Spieth said. “I think he’s a freak athlete. I think he’s not only a freak athlete, but a freak golf athlete. It’s only a matter of time [before he wins a major.]”

In his last seven majors, Johnson has been no worse than 10th through 36 holes, but has not capitalized on any of those chances. It’s more freakish that he hasn’t won one – or that he is winless this year, given all his times near the top.

Mickelson couldn’t know what is going through Johnson’s head, but he has an idea how he might feel.

“It's a challenge that I'm still facing,” said the five-time major winner, alluding to his inability to close out a U.S. Open victory. “As I try to capture the U.S. Open, he's trying to capture his first major. And the longer it goes, the more challenging it becomes. He still has a few more years before it's crunch time.
“But the longer it goes, the more you start thinking about it. The more it's discussed, the more you start thinking about it. The challenge is really on Friday and Saturday nights, when you have opportunities and you start putting that self-imposed pressure, because then you never play free. You never play with a kind of a loose attitude, where we all play our best.”

The 6-foot-4 South Carolina native always seems to play loose and carefree. His demeanor is one of nonchalance. But like most competitors, he’s burning inside. As he said at the Memorial Tournament, “No one likes to lose, but you have to deal with those things.”

That’s the nature of golf, more L’s than W’s. But good players do find a way, and great ones rise to the top in the most important events. This U.S. Open could present a real opportunity for Johnson to erase his disappointments, since it is being contested on one of the toughest layouts in the game in a championship he enjoys.

“Yeah, what's not to like? It's the U.S. Open,” he said. “I like all the tournaments I play in, but the U.S. Open's definitely one of my favorites.

“It's just tough, but I like hard golf courses. I think they suit my game very well.”

With that much talent, there isn’t a course in existence that doesn’t suit him. So it is, indeed, only a matter of time. But he has to be careful. Time always runs out.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.