We shall only properly know how close to the heart the blade came when we see how he reacts to victory, perhaps on Sunday beneath the clubhouse steps at the home of golf.
Should Dustin Johnson dissolve in tears and beat the turf as Costantino Rocca did so memorably after forcing a play-off 20 years ago, we shall know the wound inflicted when missing out yet again on that first major championship at the US Open a month ago cut deep.
Johnson mangled a 20-foot putt to win, and a four-footer coming back to take Jordan Spieth into a play-off. He claims the disappointment evaporated over dinner with his family, a plane hop from Chambers Bay. Funny how golf is just a game until you experience what it means to win a trophy of real substance, the kind that defines a career.
“Obviously, right after, I was done. I was a little bit frustrated, a little disappointed. But it was still a good week,” said Johnson. “Then coming off the green Paulina [fiancée] and Tatum [son] were standing there, so that definitely made things a lot better.
“And then we all went – her family and me and my brother – we all went just a short flight over to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and just spent the night there, hung out with friends and family. It was nice.”
Spoken like a golf tourist, not a player with the talent to make even the great ones wince. Johnson has been in the “should have, could have” slot four times, each miss acquiring greater significance with the addition of the others. If Chambers Bay, where he led by two at the turn on the final day, was his biggest sin then the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010 was not far behind.
A three-shot overnight lead vaporised by the second hole, courtesy of a triple-bogey seven. An ugly hook off the third tee confirmed there would be no coming back. Thank you very much, said Graeme McDowell, who made every inch of his 5ft 10in frame count, while the towering Johnson limped home apologetically in 82 strokes.
Later that year, Johnson failed to take account of local rules regarding bunkering at Whistling Straights at the US PGA Championship, grounding his club in casual sand at the 72nd hole that turned out to have bunker status. The resulting two-shot penalty tasered his play-off hopes.
At the Open Championship the following year, he went out in the final group, one shot behind Darren Clarke. Though Clarke stretched his advantage to four at the turn, Johnson cut the deficit in half walking to the 14th hole, a par-five and right in the zone for the game’s longest hitter. This was the moment to squeeze Clarke’s pips. Who knows how he might have reacted to an eagle or a third birdie in five holes? Instead, Johnson hit his second out of bounds to run up a double bogey. Game over.
The widely held view at the start of the final day at Royal St George’s was that Johnson’s time had come, his talent could be denied no longer. Bobby Brown, the caddie Johnson fired in the spring of 2011 in favour of Joe LaCava (now with Tiger Woods), expressed it thus: “There’s no doubt about it, he’s due. I’m sure he learned a lot from what we’ve been through the last few years and that kind of stuff. If anybody has the attitude to get it done out there today, he certainly does.”
And here we are, four years down the line, still waiting for Johnson to get it done, his attitude in the crucible of competition on championship Sunday under review. For him the glass is always half full. Rather than focus on the missed putts at Chambers Bay, he points, with some justification, to the drive at the 72nd hole – and the approach to set up the opportunity – as evidence of the right stuff.
“I knew I needed to make birdie. The fairway on that hole for me was not very wide. I had to fit it between just right of that second bunker, and I hit the drive exactly where I wanted to. I hit the second shot right where I wanted to. I hit two great shots. I don’t know how it [the ball] stayed where it did, above the hole up there.
“Unfortunately it stayed there, and it was just a tough putt. I was trying to make it. If it went in, I wanted it to barely go in, and it still went four feet by. I hit a good putt on the way back, and it just bounced and missed left.
“I was happy with the way I played and the way I handled myself coming down the last few holes. I thought I hit the shots that I was supposed to hit. I did everything I was supposed to. It wasn’t too difficult to get over it. Obviously I was a little disappointed I didn’t get the job done, but I was definitely happy with the way I played.”
Johnson has just turned 31, has talent to burn and hangs on to the benefit of the doubt for now. He is paired over the first two days with the kid 10 years his junior who is busy stealing the career many thought might be his, Spieth. In the absence of Rory McIlroy, Johnson is the long-hitter of first resort, a name with enough stardust attached to justify top billing with destiny’s boy.
If the idea was to pump a little cordite into the sea air around St Andrews, the pairings committee got the result they wanted with Johnson metaphorically lacing up the gloves when asked if Spieth has what it takes to claim that historic grand slam. “Well, I’m playing in the next two, so we’ll have to see.”
Good lad. Johnson prepared in Ireland before arriving here. On Sunday, he strode out alone in the afternoon sun, back ramrod straight like a pre-war English centre-half. His gait said “don’t mess with me”. It’s time for his golf to speak the same language.Reuse content