PGA Championship 2019: Here's the missing ingredient for Dustin Johnson at the majors
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Isn’t it about time Dustin Johnson got mad? Mean-dog mad. I’m talking Costner-Tin Cup-club-snapping mad.
“It’s not going to happen,” said one member of his inner circle, who added that DJ actually does burn pretty hot on the inside, belying his famously dispassionate demeanor.
To that we say, maybe it should happen. The guy is certainly capable. After the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, Johnson left behind his 2-iron in the locker room … in two pieces. That was the club with which he pumped his second shot out of bounds at the par-5 14th hole, costing him a chance to catch eventual winner Darren Clarke.
Yeah, more of that. Just a little more attitude.
What’s it going to hurt? If there’s one guy on the planet who should be ticked at the golf gods, it’s Johnson, who seems to know almost everything about how to excel in major championships except how to win them. Though not without trying. His runner-up finish in the Masters last month was his eighth top five in a major and his ninth top-10 in his last 15 major starts. He did capture the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont in that stretch with jaw-dropping, impeccable proficiency, but it’s his myriad collection of near misses that seem to resonate.
Which can only happen to someone with Johnson’s immense physical tools.
This topic is relevant only because of Johnson’s quality effort Friday in the second round of the 101st PGA Championship. Which was, well, what you’d expect from the No. 1 player in the world. After a three-under 67 at merciless Bethpage Black, Johnson is once again in contention in a major. He’s one of only a handful of players within hailing distance of leader and good buddy Brooks Koepka, and among that small subset, he’s the one with the most firepower.
And he does know how to win. At age 34, Johnson already is a life member of the PGA Tour after his 20th career victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship in February. His several international victories include this year’s inaugural Saudi International.
Put him in a major, however, and the words “snake” and “bit” cast a shroud over him.
It’s become routine for media types to bring up Johnson’s numerous close calls (we spare you this time) and how Johnson insists he isn’t disappointed, just “a little frustrated sometimes just because I’ve had quite a few chances and I've felt like a few of them I really didn't do anything [wrong] … I played well. But that’s just how it is. It’s hard to win majors. If it was easy, a lot of guys would have a lot more than they do.”
Enough of that talk. Frustrated? No, it’s time to get jacked. Find that chip on the shoulder that seems to work so well for Koepka, who has figured out how to channel just the right amount of inner rage into execution.
Johnson had it going for a spell on Friday when he started tearing apart the more difficult back nine at Bethpage Black, converting five birdies in six holes to climb within two of the lead. He wasn’t trying to match Koepka’s opening 63 at that stage, however.
“I wasn’t thinking anything other than the next shot I had to hit,” he said after completing 36 holes in four-under 136. “So, but, yeah, I mean, you can get it going out here. For me, if I can drive it in the fairways, I can get it going. Just need to roll the putter.”
The putter can always work a little better for him. Very few men can disrespect a golf ball as thoroughly as Johnson, but the thing seems to want to get back at him on the greens. And so it was again on Friday as he watched a number of short ones go awry.
Koepka, the defending champion this week, has credited Johnson, his workout partner in Jupiter, Fla., with teaching him a few things that have clearly helped him become perhaps the most dangerous man in the grand slam tournaments. The two were paired together in the final round at Shinnecock Hills, and Koepka outplayed Johnson to become the first man in 29 years to win back-to-back national titles. Then he went out two months later and held off Tiger Woods to win the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club.
Perhaps Johnson should take a cue from his younger friend.
Johnson was asked on Friday about his friendship and rivalry with Koepka. He didn’t shed much light on their dynamics. “Yeah, we’re very competitive on the golf course, in the gym, whatever it is,” he said. “We’re really good friends. We kind of push each other. So it’s been a lot of fun.”
Well, sure, competition is fun. What isn’t fun is watching the other guy win. As his friend you’d want to be happy for him. But as a great player who will be 35 years old next month, you should start to reward yourself more for being, without question, not only one of the most talented players in golf, but also one of the most thoroughly prepared, week-in and week-out.
Let’s pose the back-alley question. Which golfer would you least want to mix with in back-alley brawl? Few men, if any, would get more votes than the outwardly easy-going Johnson. He is more than tough enough. Now it’s time he got mean enough.
Nice guys don’t always finish last. But in sport they seldom get what they want.