The old saying made famous by Sam Elliott in “The Big Lebowski,” sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you, applies to Dustin Johnson seemingly every week.
The Cavalier Chanticleer hits the ball a mile and sometimes a mile high, allowing him to find birdies and eagles where others struggle to make par. But that talent can betray him when he makes an error. A block or hook from DJ travels farther off course than for any other player.
Johnson has become famous for his missus, hello Paulina, and misses over the last several seasons with a handful of close calls and near tragedies. There’s the collapse at Pebble at the 2010 US Open, the pushed putt at Chambers Bay earlier this year, and the weekend fade at St. Andrews.
One event, though, still haunts Johnson more than any other: the 2010 PGA when his ignorance—and wayward tee shot—cost him a shot at a playoff.
DJ drove the ball well right at the 18th and found himself in a patch of sandy dirt, trampled and marred by the masses who walked the Lake Michigan shores in Wisconsin. Johnson, in a crucial mistake, grounded his club as he addressed the ball. The PGA mandated that all sand at Whistling Straits, regardless of condition or location, should be treated as a bunker. DJ was retroactively hit with a two-stroke penalty, finished at -9, and missed the playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer both of whom shot -11.
But you knew all of that. And after leading at each of the last two majors of this season, Johnson has only stoked the embers of that memory by rushing out to a six under, 66 on the opening round of the 2015 PGA Championship. Again, he leads at a major.
The first thing to go when the pressure is on and the nerves grow is the mind. DJ’s mistake at the 2010 PGA epitomizes it.
— Troy Klongerbo Golf (@troy_usgolftv) August 14, 2015
When I think of Dustin Johnson’s grounded club in the 2010 PGA, I wonder, “how many other players grounded their club throughout the week?” — Troy Klongerbo Golf (@troy_usgolftv) August 14, 2015
The question, of course, is will the result be different this time around? Johnson has become the modern Greg Norman, equally known for his collapses as his outrageous talent. There is one difference, however. Norman won two majors.
In our haste to define everything in sports, not just golf, we’ve struggled to place a finger on what drives Johnson—how does he play so coolly the first two days, then falter on the weekend?
It’s been suggested that Johnson is a bit of an oaf who doesn’t overthink the game because he rarely thinks at all (For the record, I’m opposed to judging anyone’s intelligence from afar or based on how one speaks). When thoughts actually do break his concentration—as in scoreboard watching or the incessant interviews that come with leading a tournament—his game falters.
Although we can’t know for sure, I’d argue that this is not a lack of intelligence or succumbing to pressure. Instead, Johnson’s poor play in key situations can be explained by a few factors.
Firstly, courses play more difficult on the weekend, as the governing bodies go for blood. Secondly, playing later in the day, as Johnson would at or near the top of the leaderboard, has its disadvantages.
Sure a drier track allows DJ to run his drives well past the 300-yard marker. But with hardened fairways sometimes those balls clear straight through to the rough; or worse, kick hard off ridges that can leave Johnson in unenviable places. The same is true of greens. Traffic on the putting surfaces may have led to some of his crucial late round misses.
The biggest reason that Johnson struggles late, though, is part of what makes him so great in the first place. He is cavalier (really trying to make that nickname happen). On Thursdays and Fridays with set tee times, that attitude benefits him—he shows up and plays. Nearly everything changes in the final two rounds. Johnson tees off later in the day. The pace slows down, the day slows down, and suddenly it’s hard to be casual when the world around you is too.
Now that Johnson is leading again, his story and not Rory McIlroy’s or Jordan Spieth’s is the dominant narrative at Whistling Straits. How he performs this weekend will define DJ more than any other tournament, failure or success, he’s played before.
It’s imperative that Johnson comes out guns-a-blazing on Friday and settles somewhere where no one can reach him. So, when it comes down to the wire on Sunday, even if he misses, he can’t miss.