Despite Dustin Johnson’s inability to close out several sterling opportunities to capture his first major title, and the scar tissue that may be accumulating from the disappointments, his peers have little doubt a major title is on the horizon.
The 31-year-old Coastal Carolina alumnus is coming off perhaps the most heart-wrenching loss of his career in his last start less than a month ago.
He had a 12-foot putt on the 18th hole to win the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, then a 4-foot comeback putt to force a playoff with Jordan Spieth, but he three-putted on the inconsistent green to give the national title to Spieth.
“He’s such a great player, he will win majors,” said European Tour member Joost Luiten of the Netherlands, who tied for fourth in last week’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open and tied for 39th in the U.S. Open. “He’s so young and he can overpower golf courses. He’s so good. He will win majors and no one will think about that anymore.”
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In majors, Johnson now has two runner-up finishes, has held the outright lead in the final round three times, and has nine top-10s.
But is there indeed scar tissue building in Johnson’s psyche? The willingness and ability to put himself back into contention for major championships on Sundays is an indication that he’s able to put disappointment behind him and move on to the next championship.
His unwitting grounding of a club in a bunker that resulted in a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole that kept him from a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits came just two months after he took a lead into the final round of U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and imploded with an 82.
“When he’s coming off a debacle or mistake he still gets himself back into contention, and clearly that’s what you have to do as an athlete,” said 11-time PGA Tour winner and 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson. “That’s what you certainly have to do as golfer. Clearly Dustin has that trait, which is tremendous because it’s not the easiest thing to find or even bring out.
“He’s got that mental ability to forget about whether it was last week, two weeks ago. He can forget about the last thing, whatever sort of debacle, he can bring his game right back up and get back into contention. Part of it is because he’s just a freak talent.”
Johnson isn’t the first player to three-putt from a relatively short distance on the final hole of a major to lose a lead, and surely won’t be the last.
Retief Goosen three-putted from 10 feet at the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills to fall into a playoff with Mark Brooks, and Scott Hoch three-putted from inside 10 feet at the 1987 PGA Championship to lose by a shot.
The two players responded differently to their respective gaffes. Goosen prevailed in the 2001 playoff to win the first of his two U.S. Opens. Hoch, an 11-time PGA Tour winner, would miss a 2-foot putt to win the Masters just two years later and never won a major.
“I think his right hand took over a little bit,” Hoch said of Johnson’s second putt on the 18th at Chambers Bay. “Sometimes what gets me on TV, whenever somebody misses a putt they say, ‘Oh, I just hit a bad putt.’ But sometimes you just misread it.”
Johnson’s brother, Austin, received some criticism for not stepping in to help Johnson regroup his thoughts after Johnson ran the first putt 4 feet past the hole.
A number of caddies came to the defense this week of Austin’s decision.
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Hunter Mahan caddie John Wood. “You wouldn’t mess with his rhythm at that point if it’s not something you normally do. That was just a fluke thing that happens. I certainly wouldn’t have changed his rhythm at that point unless he looked very out of sorts, then maybe. But I think then he was in a good rhythm and he just missed a putt.”
Johnson is a popular choice to end his major drought this week at St. Andrews in his 24th major start.
He’s making his seventh British Open appearance and has finished in the top 14 in four of his past five, including a tie for second in 2011.
Many analysts believe the nine-time PGA Tour winner has the perfect game for the Old Course.
“When you look at his fit for this golf course with his power, he has the ability to – if not drive it – just flick [a wedge] into 3, 9, 10, 12 and 18. And then of course there’s the two par-5s in 5 and 14 that he can reach,” said Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo. “He really – like Bubba Watson – can reduce this course to simply a driver and a wedge. That’s an advantage that other players simply do not have.”
Rickie Fowler, who played a practice round with Johnson Tuesday, likes what he brings to the course with his enviable distance.
“I expect him to play well,” Fowler said. “He’s a great driver of the golf ball. He drove it well on Tuesday. If he continues to do that he’s going to be tough around this golf course.”
Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who knows St. Andrews well with three top-five finishes in the Alfred Dunhill Links there, provided perhaps the most unabashed prediction of Johnson’s potential at the course.
“To be honest, I think he’s the favorite here,” Fleetwood said. “Just because he had a three-putt at the last hole, it was a tough green, it was lightning fast. I don’t think that changes the way he plays golf. I think [St. Andrews] is made for Dustin. It wouldn’t surprise me. If I was a betting man then he’d be one of the first people I went with. I don’t think the three-putt is going to affect him that much.”
The Sun News golf writer Alan Blondin contributed to this article.
Garrett Johnston is a regular golf contributor to The Sun News. Follow him on Twitter @JohnstonGarrett.