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Dustin Johnson moves past another close call in a major

By Bob Gillespie
Published on
Dustin Johnson moves past another close call in a major

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Jimmy Koosa's story goes back nearly two decades. The Columbia-area golf professional and teacher was playing in a pro-junior tournament in Aiken in the mid-1990s, and one of his young teammates was a tall-for-his-age, lanky 13-year-old whose game already was turning heads.

"We played at Woodside Plantation, and he wasn't hitting it well," Koosa said. "But he knew this was an important tournament. So every time he hit a poor shot, he'd come to me and say, 'Pro, I promise you, I will not hit another bad shot.' That's just how his mind worked."

That was, and to a degree remains, the mind of Dustin Johnson.

David Winkle, president of Hambric Sports Management in Dallas, has a similar story from 2011. Johnson, in his fourth year on the Tour, was in contention on Sunday at the Open Championship at Royal St. Georges. Then, attempting an aggressive shot to try to put heat on leader Darren Clarke, he hit his second shot on the back-nine par-5 right and out of bounds, ending his chances.

"I was standing outside the scoring tent after he'd tied with Phil Mickelson for second," Winkle said. "A reporter said to me, 'I know he's resilient, but I doubt he'll get over this anytime soon.'

"About 10 seconds later, DJ came around the corner, high-fived me and said, 'How about that, Winky? Best finish in a major.'"

Related: Jordan Spieth on cusp of history heading into Open Championship

This week at the Open Championship in St. Andrews, Johnson, 31, once again will aim to win his first major championship -- this coming four weeks removed from another close call in a major -- perhaps the cruelest near-miss of all.

On Father's Day, the entire golf world watched Johnson, leading the final round of the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay before falling three shots behind eventual champion Jordan Spieth with three holes to play, come about as close to a breakthrough as is possible. Standing over a 12-foot eagle putt at the final hole, he could make it and win. Or he could two-putt to tie and face Spieth the next day in an 18-hole playoff.

As the world knows, neither of those happened. Johnson barely missed his nasty downhill first putt -- and then, with four feet left to force the playoff, he slipped his birdie attempt left, a double punch to his gut and psyche.

Yet afterward, anyone expecting a Mickelson-esque "I'm such an idiot" post-round self-evisceration instead heard this: "I'm disappointed that I three-putted the last hole ... [but] other than that, I had a good week. I'm happy with the way I played. I'm happy with everything in my game right now. I had a chance to win again [in] a major on Sunday.

"I thought I handled myself very well. I hit the shots when I needed to. So I know what it takes to get it done."

Winkle, who has represented Johnson since he turned professional in 2007, has seen this before. There was Johnson's final-round meltdown at the U.S. Open in 2010, and later that year, the "bunker-gate" episode that cost him a spot in a playoff with eventual winner Martin Kaymer and Henrick Stenson at the PGA Championship.

After each of those, Winkle says, Johnson -- unlike, say, Mickelson at the 2007 U.S. Open, whose final-hole disaster elicited a brutal self-analysis -- in essence shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and moved on.

"He looks at all those [near-misses] collectively as, 'I'm good in majors, I know how to play them, I put myself in position to contend,'" Winkle said this week. "With every one of those, he's more confident he can contend, and win. It's a process, learning how to prepare and play majors golf, and he's getting better and better."

Surrounded by fiance Paulina Gretzky, her parents, and infant son, Tatum, Johnson has seemingly moved beyond a troubled stretch when, despite at least one victory every year, his off-course life was chaotic. 

The U.S. Open, however, was unmoved by that. And for the fourth time in his career, Johnson was asked to bare his soul and reveal the pain of another near-miss. That didn't happen, either.

"It's normal, if you don't know DJ, to wonder about [bouncing back]," Winkle said. "If you know him, though, you know he never gives that a thought. He has an incredible ability to filter out [disappointment]. He looks at Chambers Bay as, 'I had one of the best weeks of my career,' not, 'I blew the U.S. Open.'

"He's the most resilient [player] I've ever known. Back at the house [after that final round], he was the least outwardly gloomy one there. He has such a healthy perspective on life."

And this: "It's not, 'Am I ever going to win a major?' I think he'll win more than one."

Related: Time-lapse video shows renovation of Hell Bunker at St. Andrews

Winkle, being Johnson's agent, is supposed to say that, of course. But he's not the only one.

Ask Brandel Chamblee, top analyst for NBC/Golf Channel, who will cover the Open Championship this week. "Dustin Johnson, I think, and probably Henrik Stenson, I would say, are neck-and-neck to be the favorites," he said. "If you're looking for a way to get over a disappointing or devastating loss, nothing like a victory would do that.

"I've said it, I'll keep saying it, [Johnson is] going to win 20-30 events on the PGA Tour. He's going to win two, three, four major championships. He's going to end up in the Hall of Fame. He's just too good not to do all that."

This week on the famed links layout at St. Andrews, Johnson will be one of the "bombers" whose length will give them an edge, Chamblee and NBC/GC colleagues Frank Nobilo and Jay Townsend said during a teleconference. What could hurt his chances? No surprise: a short game that lags behind his tee-to-green abilities.

"I think the technique that allows Dustin to hit it so far and so well [a shut clubface at impact] hurts him chipping and pitching the ball," Townsend said. "He doesn't really use the bottom of his pitching and chipping clubs the way (that) players that are much better in that part of the game" do.

Added Chamblee: "[Dustin] does struggle on mid-length pitch shots, and he certainly struggles out of the bunker."

That said, Jack Nicklaus, who won four Open Championships, was not the best short-game player; chipping was his one weakness. At St. Andrews, Winkle believes Johnson will make up for that with imagination, a crucial element of playing links golf, with its unpredictable hops and bounces.

"I think he's one of the more imaginative [players] I've ever been around," the agent said. "He can see and use slope better than anyone, and he uses the lay of the land like few I've seen. He was medalist at St. Andrews when he played there as an amateur; it fits him like a glove. I love watching him play links golf."

In fact, since 2010, Johnson hasn't finished outside the top 14 in the Open Championship (he missed the cut in his first, in 2009). That includes a tie for 14th in 2010, the only time he's played an Open Championship at St. Andrews.

Still, putting -- Johnson's final-round stumbling block -- could also be an issue on St. Andrews' huge greens, which cosmetically, at least, will resemble the fescue-and-poa-annua surfaces at Chambers Bay. Then again, everyone had trouble putting that week; Johnson's issues, though, prevented what could've been a runaway victory.

"I had a lot of putts on the back nine from six feet and in that I missed," Johnson said, notably at holes 11-13, when he fell from two shots ahead to three back of Spieth. "All of them I thought I hit good putts on. So it's tough, but that's how it is."

Koosa is more succinct. "If Dustin ever figures out how to putt, no one will beat him," he said.

More Open Championship: Take a look at a drone's aerial tour of the Old Course

Still, Winkle points out that Johnson never quit grinding on Sunday -- and then, at the 17th hole, after Spieth, playing a hole ahead, three-putted to open the door, Johnson stepped through.

"When you're inside 20 feet eight times [without making any on Sunday], eventually it chips away at you," Winkle said. "But the putt at 17" -- which Johnson drained for birdie to deadlock Speith -- "if he doesn't make that, the 18th hole is a moot point. It was a must-make, and he poured it in when it mattered."

Skills like putting and chipping can be worked on and perhaps conquered. The larger question -- will previous last-day failures in majors haunt Johnson? -- is still out there, at least to those outside his camp.

"I think at times we think, oh, Dustin is ... not affected by the situation, but he obviously is," NBC/GC's Townsend said.

"We talk ad nauseam about his talent and ability, but we also said the same about players like Sergio [Garcia]," Nobilo said. "As Sergio gets deeper into his 30's, you start to wonder, is that [winning a major] ever going to happen? It's very, very hard to answer that [with Johnson] ... because we don't know exactly what Dustin is thinking."

Winkle and Koosa say they have a good idea. Koosa said that when Johnson was finishing his college career at Coastal Carolina, the question arose who might work with him to polish his game -- and help him deal with life.

"[Johnson's] answer was, 'If there's anyone who can tell me how to deal with golf, it's Tiger Woods,'" Koosa said. "That's how strong his mind is."

As for resilience, Johnson's agent recalled watching his future client play the Western Amateur, where during qualifying he bogeyed four consecutive holes to be in jeopardy of not making match play.

"I was thinking, 'Will he let this get away?'" Winkle said. "Then at a 220-yard par-3, he rips a 6-iron to about five feet. He looks at me and says, 'Whew, I'm glad that's over.'"

Winkle laughed. "His greatest gift is that attitude," he said.

Chamblee agreed. He noted the aforementioned weaknesses in Johnson's game, then conceded that one day, perhaps soon, those might not matter.

"He's so darned good that he can get past that to some extent," he said. "[At St. Andrews], I can't think of too many ways that he won't be a factor late on Sunday, and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if he went on to win it."

Winkle and Koosa wouldn't be surprised, either.

JOHNSON'S NEAR-MISSES IN MAJORS

Columbia native Dustin Johnson has been in contention to win four major championships:

2010 U.S. OPEN

Pebble Beach

Held a three-shot lead to start the final round, but shot a closing 82, slipping all the way to a tie for eighth, as Graeme McDowell won.

2010 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP

Whistling Straits

Penalized two shots for grounding his club in a bunker, he slipped from a playoff spot with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson to a tie for fifth.

2011 BRITISH OPEN

Royal St. Georges

Aggressive second shot at the par-5 14th hole sailed right and out of bounds and he wound up tied for second with Phil Mickelson, three shots behind winner Darren Clarke.

2015 U.S. OPEN

Chambers Bay

Reached the par-5 18th in two, in position to win with a 12-foot eagle putt. He ran it 4 feet past the hole, then missed birdie to put him in playoff with Jordan Spieth.

This article was written by Bob Gillespie from The State and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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