Fergus Bisset met the laid-back Dustin Johnson at St Andrews and attempted to discover the man behind the cool persona he shows the puiblic
As the 2015 US Open drew to a close, Dustin Johnson had two great opportunities to claim his first Major victory, to rid himself of the monkey that’s been clinging resolutely to his back since he capitulated in the final round of the 2010 US Open.
Johnson led by two at the turn in round four at Chambers Bay. But he bogeyed three of the four holes after the turn to, seemingly, play himself out of the running. But DJ was handed a second chance as Branden Grace carved one out-of-bounds on the 16th and Jordan Spieth double-bogeyed the 17th.
After two superb shots to the par-5 last, Johnson faced a 15-foot eagle putt for the victory. It drifted past by a good four feet. DJ’s face visibly sank. In fact, he looked resigned to his fate. When he, too quickly, stood up to the birdie putt to try and force a play-off with Spieth, there appeared no way it could go in.
The greens were abysmal, yes, that’s been almost universally agreed. But, much like when Tom Watson faced that par putt on the final green at Turnberry in 2009, you just knew it wouldn’t drop. It didn’t, of course, and Johnson was once again left to contemplate a missed Major chance and to reflect on how best to bounce back from what was surely an agonising loss.
“Obviously I was a little disappointed with the way I finished but it wasn’t painful because I didn’t have much control over it. I had control over my game, but once you got on those greens you didn’t have much control. I was hitting putts where I wanted to, but they just weren’t going in. I was disappointed, but it wasn’t painful. I’m over it.”
Hmm. I wondered then if Dustin felt he would be under any extra scrutiny at the final two Majors of the year because of what happened at Chambers Bay and, if so, how he would cope as the media would, inevitably, continue to question him on the subject.
“No, I’m not worried about extra scrutiny,” he said. “In fact, I like it, I’m fine with it.”
Wow. OK, I thought, he didn’t want to show any sign of weakness. He had to remain positive with another Major challenge ahead of him at The Open. But wait a minute, how could three-putting the last to lose a Major by one shot not be painful?
It seemed the 31-year-old protested too much. Surely things weren’t quite as “totally cool with me” as DJ was projecting. Ostensibly Dustin is an almost horizontally laid-back guy who lets nothing bother him, but he’s a professional sportsman with ambition and goals.
The more Major-winning opportunities that come and go, the more the pressure must build. That old analogy of a duck cruising across a millpond works well – to the casual observer he seems serenely calm, but under the surface he’s going like the clappers.
What happened at St Andrews that week didn’t dispel that theory: DJ started brilliantly with a 65 and he still led after 36 holes. It all looked cool and measured and he appeared unfazed. But he fell away with a pair of 75s – a familiar story for the extremely talented American.
In 2010, DJ headed Graeme McDowell by three strokes going into the final round of the US Open at Pebble Beach. It was a course he had won on earlier in the year (in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am) and opening rounds of 71, 70 and 66 suggested he had total mastery of the layout and would sail to the first of many Major victories.
But a triple-bogey at the 2nd and double-bogey on the 3rd threw the then 25-year-old out of the picture. He limped in with a closing 82.
Later that year, Johnson thought he had forced his way into a play-off for the USPGA Championship at Whistling Straits, but was penalised two strokes after completing the final hole for grounding his club in a sandy area deemed to be a bunker – an error he really shouldn’t have made.
In 2011, he had a chance to win The Open Championship at Royal St George’s until he fired a ball out-of-bounds on the 14th hole of the final round. Add Chambers Bay into the mix and there’s no denying that DJ has some Major baggage.
I was interested to know if Dustin felt nervous in those situations. Is that what had prevented him crossing the line in a Major? When had he felt nervous on the golf course? Revealingly, his answer steered us elsewhere.
“When I played in my first Ryder Cup in 2010, I was really nervous then,” he said. “I was playing with Phil and we were first match out. I remember the 1st at Celtic Manor wasn’t really a driver hole but there was no chance I was hitting anything but a driver. I wanted the biggest head I could just to make contact! Yes I was definitely nervous then.”
Speaking about the Ryder Cup, DJ was animated. It was clear the historic biennial team event means a great deal to him. Having missed the 2014 matches because of personal issues, he is very keen to be part of the US team for Hazeltine in 2016.
“I love playing in the Ryder Cup, it’s just a great event,” he said. “It’s the best event, something different, pulling for your teammates instead of most weeks when you’re rooting against them – it’s just fun. It reminds me of being in college or playing the Walker Cup: those events were always so much fun. You spend the whole week together, have dinners together, everything.”