There is a perception in golf that Dustin Johnson is not the brightest button in the box. One rather dismissive columnist advanced the view that Johnson is so dense light bends around him. Nice line, yet at some point, his talent being what it is, you have to think Johnson will rise to his full height and proclaim: “I am the light.”
That is how it looked on Thursday as he bent the ball around St Andrews as if playing with a wand. Out in 31, back in 34 for an effortless 65 to lead the Open Championship on seven-under par. Thank you very much. Too good, even, for golf’s history chaser, Jordan Spieth .
Johnson is one clear of a group that includes Jason Day, Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, Zach Johnson and England’s Danny Willett and two ahead of playing partner Spieth. Louis Oosthuizen, who won here five years ago, and fellow South African and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, are also well placed in the five-under cluster.
Johnson held this station at the US Open a month ago, of course. He led by two with nine to play and had a 20-footer for eagle to win at the last and keep Spieth out of history’s magic circle. And we know how that ended. He has reached an accommodation with himself over his failure to close that deal, claiming the ball behaved as the greens wanted them to not as he commanded.
While that might sound like an abnegation of responsibility there was none of that here. The greens were as true as a boy scout under oath, and he had the ball on a string. The surprise was it took him a hole to get going, his first strike against par coming at the second. Another followed immediately and when the first eagle of the week landed at the fifth to take him to four-under par, the words “here we go” echoed around the Old Course. Johnson was in golf’s dreamboat group with the mighty Spieth, who matched him almost stroke for stroke going out, both reaching the turn on five-under par. The back nine, heading home into a stiffening breeze, presented the tougher examination, checking the relentless march of Spieth, who required a 20-footer for birdie at the last to sign for a 67.
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There was not a blemish on Johnson’s card. The par saves at the 16th from 10 feet and the 17th from 15 feet will have felt like birdies. They were the only two times he was out of position off the tee. If he can maintain that level of execution over the coming days, it is hard to see how even Spieth might land a blow, as he acknowledged.
“If DJ keeps driving it the way he is, then I’m going to have to play my best golf to have a chance. It’s hard to argue with somebody who’s splitting bunkers at about 380 yards and just two-putting for birdie on five or six of the holes when there’s only two par-5s. I don’t have that in the bag, so I’ve got to make up for it with ball-striking.”
On the other hand, if Johnson’s travails at Chambers Bay were an expression of a weakness he cannot bring himself to acknowledge, and that was the fourth time he has contended at a major and not prevailed, then the field can relax. For now Johnson maintains his defiance. “There’s really nothing to be upset about [the US Open]. I played well. I did everything I was supposed to do. I mean, I was even hitting good putts,” Johnson said. “There was nothing you could do on those greens to make the ball go where you wanted it to. The ball went wherever the greens wanted it to, not where you wanted it to. I hit the ball well. I put myself in the right positions.”
And unlike Chambers Bay, St Andrews is a course Johnson not only appreciates but understands. “This venue is one of my favourite Opens. It’s kind of hard to beat St Andrews for an Open Championship. I think it sets up well for me. You’ve got to drive it well. You’ve got to miss the bunkers. That’s first and foremost. But then coming into the greens you’ve really got to be precise.”
If there is one player out here who is able to resist the Johnson artillery it is the 21-year-old Texan chasing the improbable quad. That that is how Spieth sees it, too, as you might, having won the Masters and the US Masters already this year. “I would imagine it can be [intimidating] for some. I’ve played enough golf with him to believe in my skill set and that I can still trump that crazy ability that he has.
“I expect when he stands on the tee it’s going to be up there miles and down the fairway. I also expect that I can birdie each hole when I stand on the tee. It just happens to be a little different route.”
And not only for Spieth. Lawrie is among those in the pack one behind Johnson. Though he ran a mile from the idea that he is contending for the first time since his memorable victory at Carnoustie in 1999, Lawrie might have allowed himself a wee smile before bed, if not in front of the cameras.
“It’s only the first round. There’s an unbelievable number of world class players playing this week, so I’m not even thinking about Sunday yet. Right now I’m thinking about my lunch. I’m pretty hungry. Good day today, but a long way to go,” Lawrie said.
While the forecasters can’t make up their minds about the potency of it, they are agreed that the weather will be more of a factor on Friday. It was hardly tropical in the afternoon when gloves and balaclavas were de rigueur. The players can’t win, beaten up by the weather should things turn nasty or a storm called Johnson when it’s fair.