The category of “best player yet to win a major” changes frequently. Dustin Johnson is the latest candidate for the dubious honours that, nonetheless, suggest just how capable a player is. The 29-year-old who hits the ball miles and who has shown plenty of touch with the shorter shots won the HSBC Champions in Shanghai by three shots over Ian Poulter. What’s next, the Masters in five months?
The win was Johnson’s eighth of his career, and his first in a World Golf Championships event. He’s won at least one PGA Tour event in each of the last seven years. He does it with so much ease sometimes that you wonder why he isn’t winning multiple times every year. Golf is a tough game and all that, but still, Johnson, or “DJ” as everybody on tour knows him, is super-talented.
I first saw him years ago at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. I’d heard about this young, long-hitting golfer from South Carolina whose swing was long and lazy, a la Ernie Els, and explosive. I hung out on the range maybe 20 yards behind him to get a sense of what he could do. He could do a lot. For one thing, he had that magic formula of high launch/low spin down, whatever club he had in his hands. The ball took off in the clouds and appeared to go higher and higher. When would it come down?
Johnson was just starting his PGA Tour career. Much later, I went out to follow him in the last round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He’d shot 71-70-66 and held a three-shot lead over Graeme McDowell, then in second place. Johnson missed the green on the second hole with a wedge in his hands. His ball finished in a weird spot in the high rough right of the green. Johnson went at it left-handed. The shot didn’t come off. He played his next shot too quickly, as he acknowledged later. It looked like he took no time at all to think out the shot.
In the end–and it was all but the end for his chances in that U.S. Open–Johnson triple-bogeyed the hole. He was imploding. He took an aggressive line on the par-four, dogleg left third hole, and drove into the trees on the direct line to the green. The ball was found, but about 20 seconds after the five-minute limit for finding it had expired. Johnson was already on his way back to the tee. He double-bogeyed the hole and went on to shoot 82 and finish in a tie for eighth, five shots behind the champion McDowell.
Two months later Johnson tied for fifth in the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisc. But what a way to post a top-five finish. He took a one-shot lead to the last hole, and drove into what he didn’t recognize as a bunker to the right of the 18th fairway. It was an easy mistake to make, given the scrappy appearance of the bunkers. It was easy to think they were waste areas rather than bunkers, even though officials had advised players over and over that they were indeed bunkers.
Johnson bogeyed the hole, and figured he was in a playoff. But he was informed that he had grounded his club in a bunker, not a waste area. He was assessed a two-shot penalty and fell into a tie for fifth place. Goodbye chance at that major.
Next up in the count of a “near-major” for Johnson was the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, Eng. He started the final round a shot behind Darren Clarke and was still contending when he reached the par-five 14th hole. He hit his second shot out of bounds, and that was that. Johnson tied for second, three shots behind winner Clarke.
Was Johnson showing a propensity for hitting poor shots when it most mattered? He’d hit a few, for sure, and he had said he needed to learn to be more patient. Now, the RBC Canadian Open is not exactly a major–well, it’s the fifth major for Canadians, as they like to say and as they do believe–but still, it’s a national championship and a nice tournament to win. Johnson was tied for the lead last July at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont. on Sunday when he stood on the tee at the par-four 17th hole. It’s a driver hole, for him, as he would say later. He apparently didn’t consider hitting less club off the tee, although he’s so long he didn’t need driver.
Johnson pushed his drive out of bounds and tripled the hole. Goodbye Canadian Open. He tied for eighth in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, NY the next week–another top-10 in a major–but he wants and is capable of much more.
Now he’s won his first WGC event. Asked in Shanghai whether he thought the win would help in his quest to win his first major, Johnson said, “Yeah, I mean, this is probably my biggest win, and with the field and the tournament, World Golf Championships. Hopefully there’s just better things to come.”
One thing seems certain. When the season of the majors begins in April at the Masters, the golf world will have anointed Johnson the best player yet to win a major. It’s his honour, one he’d like to soon give up.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein