Johnson has shot at glory close to home

ablondin@thesunnews.comAugust 7, 2012 

— It has been an atypical year for Dustin Johnson.

One that has tested his patience, body and recuperative powers, and now – as Johnson would prefer it – finally his game.

Johnson got a late start to the season because of arthroscopic surgery last November to repair damaged cartilage in his knee, returned to action too quickly and withdrew from his first event with lower back pain, then missed 10 weeks after aggravating the back injury lifting a jet ski prior to the Masters.

He’s been back on the PGA Tour for a little more than two months, won his second event back and has four top-20s in seven events since returning to action in late May.

“It’s been tough,” Johnson said. “But the events I’ve played in this year I’ve played really well. I’m looking forward to playing the next few weeks.”

This week’s 94th PGA Championship at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course is one of the most anticipated events in the career of the Coastal Carolina alumnus and Columbia native, considering it’s the first professional golf major ever played in his home state.

“It’s great, especially being so close to home,” said Johnson, who owns a house in Myrtle Beach and resides in Florida. “It’s always fun to play in front of your hometown fans.

“… I like the golf course. It sets up well for me. It’s fairly long. The fairways are generous. If you miss the fairway you get in some trouble, but they’re fairly wide. I like the shots off the tees and I think I’ve got a pretty good game plan for the course.”

Johnson won the $5.6 million FedEx St. Jude Classic on June 10 for his sixth win in less than five full seasons on the PGA Tour. In the 14 other events Johnson has completed this year, he has four other top-10s and just one missed cut.

He’s coming off a tie for 19th last week in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he closed with a 2-under-par 68 for a 2-under total, and that followed a tie for ninth in the British Open.

“I’m hitting the ball good right now,” Johnson said after a practice round Tuesday. “I hit the ball really well last week. I didn’t score too well but in the final round I started hitting the ball really well and controlling the ball, whether it’s left to right or right to left. So I’m excited about this week.”

Johnson has become a consistent contender in major championships. In his last 11 majors, Johnson has five top-10s including a runner-up in last year’s British Open, took a lead into the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open, and was excluded from a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship because of a two-stroke penalty for unknowingly grounding his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole. He has tied for 10th and fifth in two of his last three PGA Championships.

“[The majors] are all fun,” Johnson said. “I’m going to enjoy this week and just try to give myself a chance to win on Sunday.”

Johnson is playing for more than just a PGA title this week. He can also earn a spot in the Ryder Cup, being played Sept. 28-30 at Medinah Country Club in Illinois. Johnson is 14th in U.S. Ryder Cup Team points and the top eight following Sunday’s final round qualify for the team. U.S. Captain Davis Love III will select four more players on Sept. 4 to complete the team.

Johnson participated in the 2010 Ryder Cup and 2011 Presidents Cup, making both U.S. teams on points.

The last time he had to rely on a captain’s pick to make an international team was his second year on tour in 2009. As a 25-year-old, Johnson was 15th in the Presidents Cup point standings and was hot leading up to selection Monday.

In his four prior events – the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, PGA Championship and two FedExCup Playoff events – Johnson had three top-15s, a top finish of fourth and low finish of 22nd. But captain Fred Couples bypassed him, instead selecting then-reigning U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover and Hunter Mahan.

“Whether it’s the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, I love the team events,” Johnson said. “It’s very important to me. It’s a lot of fun, and obviously this year I didn’t play for three months and I’m a little behind, but if I play good the next few weeks I’ll be on the team. … I can get it done this week with a good finish.”

Johnson has three events after the PGA Championship to earn points. The $5.2 million Wyndham Championship is next week in Greensboro, N.C. – it’s a tournament Johnson doesn’t traditionally play – then the four-event playoffs begin with The Barclays in New York and Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston. Johnson is the defending Barclays champion and has won a playoff event in each of the past two years.

Johnson hopes to take a decision out of the hands of Love, whom he says he hasn’t lobbied for a spot. “The captain is going to do what he thinks is best,” Johnson said. “I can’t really do anything to change his mind. If he wants to pick me, he’ll pick me. I think I’ll be a good asset to the team and I hope I’m on the team. But if I play well the next few weeks, I won’t have to worry about it.”

Though Johnson hasn’t played the Ocean Course many times, his caddie, Bobby Brown, is rich with course knowledge. Brown has lived in Charleston or Mount Pleasant for the past 18 months and has been to the Ocean Course “probably 40 or 50 times in the last year and a half … trying to get ready for this week,” Brown said. “And I’ve befriended a bunch of Kiawah caddies who have helped me quite a bit. So I’m pretty prepared this week.”

Johnson and Brown were reunited this season. Johnson fired Brown in the spring of 2011 and hired former Couples caddie Joe LaCava shortly thereafter, but LaCava left Johnson in September to join Tiger Woods.

The affable Brown had been with Johnson three years prior to their split last year, and has been on the bag for five of his six wins.

“It’s not so much being back to work for him, it’s good to have my best friend back,” Brown said. “We’re boys, you know. That little split we had, you know a lot of guys go through that. It might have been the best thing for our relationship. I knew where I stood in the pecking order of things. Five years later on this tour, what does a caddie really have to say to a player?

“Dustin knows all these golf courses, he knows his targets. It’s more the personality match and we have a good personality match.”

Brown has played several rounds on the Ocean Course with Johnson’s younger brother, Austin, who worked at Kiawah Island’s Turtle Point Golf Club. “Obviously he’s got a lot of numbers for carries and stuff like that, and good lines off tees, so that helps a lot,” Johnson said of Brown. “And he’s got some good reads on the greens from playing out here so much.”

Johnson’s thankful to be talking golf and competition again, particularly this week.

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 843-626-0284.

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