SAN FRANCISCO — A three-month layoff did little to throw Dustin Johnson off his game.
It’s the stout Olympic Club’s turn to take its shot this week.
Johnson is teeing off Thursday in the U.S. Open four days after winning the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, which was just his second tournament after missing three months with a back injury. It didn’t take long for the Coastal Carolina alumnus and former Myrtle Beach resident to return to competitive form with his sixth PGA Tour title.
“I’m very confident from playing well last week,” Johnson said Tuesday. “The game is in good form so it gives me confidence.”
It’s a confidence he’ll need to take on one of the most challenging tests of the year. Johnson said he’s not overconfident from his win, understanding that a U.S. Open venue is a whole new set of standards.
“As far as this week goes it’s a whole new week,” Johnson said. “It’s a totally different golf course [than Memphis]. I just gotta keep doing the things I’m doing: keep hitting it well, keep putting it well.”
Johnson is currently 29th in putting on the PGA Tour from 5-10 feet, a distance that is common for par-saving putts at a U.S. Open. With his advantage in distance off the tee, currently 10th on tour, he could give himself a shot at Olympic Club.
The course features what many are calling the toughest opening six holes in major championship history, and Johnson understands that a stern test awaits Thursday as he opens his round.
“This course is tough,” he said. “I’ve played the ‘07 [U.S.] Amateur here, so I’ve played it. They’ve made a lot of changes to it since. It’s just a good, tough golf course.”
The Olympic Club has become known as the “graveyard of legends” with the previous four Opens held here producing a less heralded player clipping a legend down the stretch.
In 1955, it was Jack Fleck defeating Ben Hogan, 1966 saw Billy Casper overcome Arnold Palmer’s seven-shot lead on the back nine, 1987 saw Scott Simpson defeat Tom Watson by one, and in 1998 it was Lee Janzen over the late Payne Stewart when the latter just missed his potential playoff-forcing putt on the 18th.
Will it be a lesser known player again this year at Olympic?
It will be a player, according to Johnson, who has full command of his shot-making.
“This is a golf course where you’ve gotta hit every club in the bag,” Johnson said. “There’s no specific one club that you’ve gotta work on. You’ve gotta hit them all, and you’ve gotta hit them all good.”
The course varies in distances from the short par-4 seventh, which plays 288 yards, to the outlandish 670-yard par-5 16th.
Spaniard Alvaro Quiros was able to hole out from the tee during his practice round on Wednesday at the short seventh, so players will certainly have decisions to make off the tees.
Another part of this tricky U.S. Open equation are the doglegs and slopes to Olympic’s fairways. Six of the 14 fairways slope the opposite direction of the dogleg, known as reverse camber, making it extremely crucial to land the ball in the correct portions of the landing areas.
Johnson, after three days of practice, has gotten a sense of what to prioritize on this course. “Just more of a gameplan of what you’re hitting off of each tee, what kind of shot to hit,” he said. “If you do miss it, where’s the best spot to miss it?”
Johnson came so close to winning this championship in 2010 down the coast at Pebble Beach before faltering on Sunday with an 82, and he has developed an affinity for the left coast’s venues. He won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in ‘09 and ‘10, and he played in the aforementioned ‘07 US Amateur at Olympic. So he has had some experience and tasted some success at Northern California coastal golf venues.
“I like these Northern California golf courses, so I’m comfortable here,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to playing it.”
He will get his chance Thursday paired with Rickie Fowler, another participant in the ‘07 Amateur at Olympic, and Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa at 4:58 (Eastern) starting at the ninth hole, an unusual start for a major. But Olympic has proven it doesn’t do usual. Just look at its list of champions.
Johnson is also a big fan of his national championship, leaving the Merchandise Pavilion on Tuesday evening with 3 full bags of U.S. Open memorabilia.