SANDWICH, England — After squandering two chances to win a major championship last year, Coastal Carolina alumnus Dustin Johnson never envisioned getting another shot at this British Open.
Not when he arrived at Royal St. George's with swollen glands the size of grapes.
Certainly not when he played the first 12 holes at 4 over, looking more like a guy headed home before the weekend than someone who'd be playing in the final group.
Well, that's just where he'll be today.
Johnson claimed a well-deserved spot in the last pairing with his second straight 2-under 68 in the third round, leaving him one stroke off the pace set Saturday by Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke.
Not that the 27-year-old American shouldn't be getting used to it by now. This will be the third time in the last six majors he's claimed one of those coveted spots. Now, he's just got to show he can finish the job.
Stay away from the 82s. And definitely, under no circumstances, ground a club in anything resembling a bunker, no matter how much it looks like a footpath.
"Well, obviously I've been in this situation a few times, so I think the more and more you can put yourself in a situation, the more comfortable you get," Johnson said. "I'm going to be pretty comfortable out there tomorrow because I know what to expect, I know how to approach it, and I know what I do in those situations."
At last year's U.S. Open, Johnson went to the final round with a commanding three-stroke lead and, with youthful bravado, insisted he could handle the pressure. Clearly, he couldn't. By the time he got to the fifth hole, the lead was gone. He threw it away with a mess of a start - triple-bogey, double-bogey, bogey - and staggered to the finish with an 82, an eighth-place afterthought to Graeme McDowell's first major title.
"It's the first time I've gone into a major in the last group or with the lead or anything," he recalled. "I had a really good warmup, so I wasn't expecting to go out and play bad. I just had kind of a bad start on 2 and kind of just spiraled down after that."
Whatever disappointment Johnson must have felt that day paled against his plight two months later at the PGA Championship. Again playing in the last group, though this time starting out with a three-shot deficit to Nick Watney, Johnson rallied for the outright lead by curling in a putt at the 17th hole for his second straight birdie.
Johnson sent his tee shot at No. 18 far beyond the fairway, over the ropes that held back the fans and into a tiny patch of sand that had been trampled over all week. Johnson figured it was a footpath. Instead, it was one of the countless bunkers at Whistling Straits, most of them far out of play for the pros.
When Johnson grounded his club before striking the shot, he essentially lost the tournament. He went on to make bogey and thought he was going to a playoff, only to be told he must assess himself a two-stroke penalty for a much-debated but very clear rules violation.
Martin Kaymer won the championship. Johnson went home in shock.
"Other than the last hole, I played really good golf," he said. "I birdied 16 and 17 to get a one-shot lead going into 18. I played really good. I played good golf. I hung in there all day. I wasn't making any putts at all on Sunday at the PGA, but I fought and I hung in there all day and then got a few to go in."
Coming into this Open with some sort of infection that caused his glands to bulge, Johnson felt awful when he walked out for the opening round Thursday.
"I went and saw the doctor," Johnson said. "He just gave me some medicine and told me to take it. He said I'd start feeling better in a few days. I said OK."
He gutted out a decent-enough start, but a stretch of three bogeys in four holes sent his score soaring to 4 over. It was a little early to throw the panic switch, but not by much.
"I didn't feel like I played very bad starting out. I played solid," Johnson said. "I was hitting the ball well, just missed a couple putts here and a couple putts there and I was 4 over through 13 holes. I knew I needed to get something going.
Taking advantage of his power, he picked up his first birdie at the par-5 14th. He followed with another at the 15th. Then came the shot that really got things going Johnson's way: a wedge from 161 yards at the par-3 16th.
The ball caromed hard toward the hole and probably would've run a good 20 feet past - if it hadn't struck the flagstick and dropped in for the third ace of his pro career.
"Obviously, the ace I had on 16," Johnson said, "really kind of got me going."
He hasn't looked back.
Over the last 41 holes, Johnson has posted a score of 8 under. That's the sort of golf that makes a major champion, and he's feeling more and more comfortable on a course that he hadn't seen until a week ago.
"I was playing pretty well, but you never know, especially coming into a British Open," he said. "I didn't know how it would suit my game. I didn't know how it would fit my eye. But after playing the course a few times ... I thought it set up pretty well for me."
Now, he's in a spot he never expected.
"You know," Johnson marveled, "through 13 holes in the first round, I definitely didn't see myself in the final on Sunday. But I think I've definitely played well enough to do that."