Jim McCabe: The curious case of Dustin Johnson

Dustin Johnson’s supporters say that what gets overlooked when you focus on the ending to his 2010 PGA Championship is how well he played to charge into the lead. 

If that’s the case, it’s clear there are those who don’t want to acknowledge that there’s something seriously amiss with this supreme talent.

To suggest that Johnson, 31, is the most gifted golfer in the world is not hyperbole. At 6 feet 4 inches and blessed with such an athletic prowess that it is said he could have played basketball at the highest level, at least collegiately, Johnson is a specimen. Indeed, not even Rory McIlroy is blessed with more pure athleticism than Johnson, yet it’s the young man from Co Down who keeps tossing those major championships on his resume — four and counting — not the tall and gangly one from South Carolina. What gives?

In a word, it’s the “intangible”, in this case, the ability to maintain composure, to use clear-thinking to quiet the nerves and make sensible judgments under pressure. No one can question whether McIlroy always exercises this skill flawlessly in all corners of his life — remember the infamous toothache at the Honda Classic, and that’s not to bring up the recent ankle injury that occurred how — but give him credit for having the ability to put a vice-like grip on important golf tournaments when he is in contention. His record speaks for itself, after the 2011 Masters debacle, that is, while Johnson is still searching for just one major win to prove that he is worthy of all the accolades that constantly come his way.

It is Johnson’s summer of heartache that is fresh on everyone’s mind, and for good reason. Tied for the lead through 54 holes at the US Open, he had a 12-foot eagle putt at the 72nd green to win, blew it four feet by, then missed the come-backer to hand the trophy to Jordan Spieth. One month later, Johnson raced to trips of 65-69 to seize the Open Championship lead and, with Danny Willett and Paul Lawrie as his nearest competitors, and with McIlroy sidelined, did it not seem as if the door was wide open for his first major?

Except all you could hear, clear all the way from St Andrews to South Carolina, was that door shutting, Johnson’s 75-75 close creating a massive crack in his psyche. It was the fifth time a major championship had been in his grasp and the fifth time that he had let it slip away.

Suddenly, it’s fair game to question whether Johnson will be another Tom Weiskopf — a tall and strong golfer with a beautiful swing who just couldn’t get it done in the majors. That he won just one major always baffled Weiskopf fans; that Johnson is major-less is stupefying.

Which brings us to the shores of Lake Michigan, where the 97th PGA Championship will get underway tomorrow at Whistling Straits. McIlroy’s return to competition is the lead story, just ahead of Jordan Spieth’s chance to become just the third player in history to win three professional majors in a season (joining Ben Hogan in 1953 and Tiger Woods in 2000).

However, Johnson’s return to this windswept property is what resonates with many, for it was here in 2010 that his gaffe was hard to comprehend.

Having birdied the 13th, 16th, and 17th holes, Johnson had pushed to 12-under and, with a one-shot lead at the 72nd tee, was there any doubt he was stepping into the winner’s circle for the first time at a major. That it didn’t happen has turned out to be no surprise. The way in which he melted down, however, was nuts.

Wide right with his tee shot, Johnson’s ball came to rest in the middle of the gallery, many of whom stood in what was clearly a bunker. Ludicrous that it was that fans could stand in the bunker — no argument there — it was even more absurd how Johnson stood there in sand and grounded his club.

Having bogeyed the hole to drop to 11-under, Johnson should have been in a playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson. Instead, he was told to sit and watch TV, his mistake shown to him in the scorer’s hut.

Again, it’s true: The features of Whistling Straits are crazy, so many bunkers seemingly out of play and places for fans to stand, but Johnson needed clearer thinking and calmer nerves and he’d not have grounded his club and not been penalized two strokes that left him tied for fifth.

Johnson deserved all the praise he received for the way in which he handled the gut-wrenching finish, but, the question has to be asked: Why does this guy keep squandering chances on Sunday to win a major?

The guess is, he’s asking it, too.

That’s the scary part.

More on this topic

Rory McIlroy: Spieth deserves to be World No 1

Jason Day wins first major after so many near-missesJason Day wins first major after so many near-misses

Solid McIlroy impressed as Spieth on move at PGASolid McIlroy impressed as Spieth on move at PGA

Missing St Andrews major gave me ‘perspective’, says McIlroy


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