The suffering of Dustin Johnson

June 21, 2015

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. -- Congratulations to Rory McIlroy, who just earned a prize that eluded Tiger Woods for his entire career: A true rival.

That's how I planned to end this piece, back when I sat on the bank overlooking the 14th hole on Sunday, dead sure that Jordan Spieth would win the U.S. Open. I had just left Dustin Johnson behind after two bogeys and a three-putt par on 12 that might as well have been a bogey. I was supposed to stay with him all day, but when the energy starts to gather around a player like Spieth, you'd be an idiot to stay away. The prospect of walking up the 13th hole with DJ while the real action was taking place by the water was too daunting to consider, and so I abandoned him.

Johnson's playing partner, Jason Day, wasn't much better. He couldn't hit a short putt all day, and was visibly sagging after his bout with vertigo that led to an on-course collapse Friday. The heroism of Saturday's 68 was long past, and now he looked impossibly feeble. At times, the stiffness of his gait, the pained expressions, and the way he used his club as a cane all took on the appearance of melodrama -- he couldn't bend down to pick up his tee on the 11th, but he scooped it with ease on the 12th -- and it never felt quite as compelling as it had a day earlier. The geniuses at Fox didn't help matters by dedicating a camera to watching him walk between holes, even using a pointless split screen to follow his movements when actual golf was being played elsewhere. How, I wondered, is it possible to make even vertigo tacky? All they were missing was a sensational slogan: "When he collapses, we'll be there!" A few Internet wits on my Twitter feed theorized that if Day didn't oblige them by crumpling into a heap at some point, a Fox executive would appear on site with an elephant gun loaded with tranquilizers...or maybe they'd take the coward's way out and just fly a drone into his head.


In reality, the drama never transpired. Instead, Day played like he usually plays in these moments: Lots of missed putts. On nine and 11 and 12, his tee-to-green game looked fine, but his short putts slid by the hole -- USGA czar Mike Davis, looking on, gave a "wow!" after the miss on 10, possibly inspired by the fear that a mutant stalk of poa annua had shot up at the last moment to stop the ball in its tracks -- and then he lost his chance for good with a double bogey on 13.

Dustin's fade was slower, and somewhat less agonizing, but it followed a similar formula: Opportunity after opportunity wasted, sometimes against all logic. He bogeyed again on 13 after I had cut across the fescue to the 14th fairway, so I wrote him off and came up with that cute line about Rory and Tiger.

I felt I had learned something about Dustin anyway -- something debilitating and a little bit sad -- stemming from the fact that he rarely spoke with his brother and caddie Austin. It presented a stark contrast with Spieth, who kept up a neurotic monologue with Michael Greller all day, constantly seeking and receiving reassurance about the wind, the terrain, the distance, the break, and god knows what else. He uses Greller as his own personal security blanket, and Greller knows exactly how to play the role. Even in the moments of tension, the caddie is careful not to break character. On 15, for instance, Spieth had to make a short but tricky par putt after a tee shot that, despite his exhortations, rolled down a false front after flirting with the flag. A recovery putt set up the par chance, and when the ball went in the hole, Greller turned away from Spieth and just stared into the distance, his face taut as the skin of a drum. You could feel his desire to scream in relief, to let the tension emanate like doppler waves and knock us all over, but that's not his role -- he's the rock in Spieth's never-ending storm of emotions, and even a simple "oh thank God" isn't in the cards. So he just stared out over our heads for a nonverbal moment, and then he turned back to Spieth with an encouraging word. Greller's mask doesn't slip, and that's what it means to be a pro.

With Dustin, though, there's a sense of anarchy that doesn't go very well with the tension of a major championship. Austin is not the caddie with the exhaustive plan, or the supportive word. On Sunday, he didn't even serve to loosen his brother up at critical moments -- it was all silence and a few awkward laughs. I've heard a theory going around the media center that -- let's just put it bluntly -- Dustin is too dumb to be affected by nerves. But nerves are like water seeping through the cracks in a rock, and they will always find a way. The idea that a lack of intelligence makes someone immune is nonsense, and Chambers Bay proved it for the third time in Johnson's career. What he needed instead was a comprehensive plan.

With Spieth, there was always the sense that a meticulous, all-encompassing strategy was being deployed, with plan Bs and Cs where A wouldn't fly. This is what a golfer covets -- it's why they all use the royal "we" when talking about themselves in press conferences. One person strikes the ball, but a whole team can take part in the preparation and at least give the helpful illusion of collaboration. In some kind of metaphysical way, I believe this kind of group forethought somehow makes a golfer luckier, as though he can convince the universe to be on his side.

But where were Dustin's collaborators? Where was his brother when I saw him shaking his head vigorously after a poor approach on 10, as if trying to rid himself of a bad thought? By the time he struck his tee shot on the 13th hole after the run of bogeys, I felt a surge of pure pity toward him. I realize how strange that sounds, since he has the body of a god and the money of a king, but in that moment I saw him laid bare in a state of pure solitude. He had nobody to help curb the terrible loneliness inherent in golf, and he had to stand up to the relentless pressure all by himself. It was like watching a hurricane make landfall, and while Team Spieth had a fortified underground bunker ready, Dustin didn't even have the sense to strap himself to a tree.

He wasn't equipped for it. He was like a lamb to the slaughter. I left him for the golden child, because I couldn't stand to watch.

Alongside the holes, we walked like ancient warriors along the narrow footpaths built into the hills. People stood in silhouette atop the ridges like scouts. The sun beat down. Past the lone fir you could see a lone sailboat in the lone sound. There was an island out there, someone told me, where they used to keep convicts. An osprey coasted by, wings spread to the wind. The passenger trains rumbled past, and the ground shook. The voice on my radio said, "we don't know the heart of Branden Grace."

He was right, at least as far as I was concerned, and I was glad when Grace hit a ball out of bounds on the 16th hole, because he was looking very tough and had apparently closed out six straight 54-hole leads, and I very much didn't want to write in vague terms about the "stoic South African."

But the stoic South African hit his tee shot on 16 down to the green fence along the water, out of bounds, and that was that. With him out of the way, Spieth had the defining moment of greatness I was waiting for -- the 28-foot birdie putt that curled into the hole. He turned to the Puget Sound and screamed. Now, at -6, he knew he'd won. I knew it too.

We were both wrong, even though we were right. Because on 17, he pushed a 6-iron to the right, played a very mature recovery onto the green, and settled for a safe bogey.

Unfortunately, Chambers Bay didn't settle for a safe bogey -- the nasty up-jumped gravel pit wanted a double, and that's what it got. I groaned, because if he was going to blow it now, what did all the narratives mean? Why had Greller spent a week as a life coach disguised as a caddie, quieting the cameras and reading the greens and offering cut-rate therapy? What did it mean if DJ's collapse wasn't a collapse at all? Jesus, wasn't he still at -3? What did it mean that I heard a roar as I made my way through the tunnel beneath the stands to the 18th green, stepping over the empty bottles and wrappers thrown down from the seats? What did it mean when Johnson birdied to tie Spieth at -4, and that Oosthuizen, of all people, had reached the same number?

Earlier, I'd texted my editor that I was on the scene for the collapse, and he texted me, "we're a long way from a collapse." It was frustrating to discover that he'd been right, and that my narratives were being burned like the marina on Saturday, black smoke streaming from the memory of my stillborn story.

The drama that waited...

Spieth with his stunner of a 3-wood, 284 yards, off the backboard, around the green, somehow holding the upper tier. The roars that greeted him, everyone on their feet beneath the USGA flags whipping in the wind. The two-putt for birdie that took Spieth to -5 and put Oosthuizen out of his misery -- the misery being that the poisonous 80 shot by Tiger Woods on Thursday had attached a bloody anchor to him, and it didn't even matter that he was the best golfer on the course by a wide margin from Friday to Sunday. The clap of frustration as Jordan climbed the hill and disappeared, awaiting his fate.

DJ with his drive, and his perfect approach. And the three agonizing putts that made us all feel, no hyperbole, like we'd all failed. It was the worst kind of sympathetic reaction -- every one of us choked alongside him, even as we were bearing witness. The reality of Spieth's win, which is the best thing that could have happened to this sport, was momentarily muted by a feeling of collective suffering on the 18th green.

I wasn't there when Dustin gave the press a few halfhearted quotes, leaning against a fence outside the player hospitality tent, but I'm told his face was blank and his affect was flat. No surprise. He's not the kind of person to give you the closure that comes with tears, or rage, or even a momentary, despondent stare. You wonder what he's feeling, or if he's feeling at all. He has to be, right? But then he bolts, and you can't blame him, and the spotlight shifts to the youngest winner of two majors since Gene Sarazen in 1922.

So: Congratulations to Rory McIlroy, who just earned a prize that eluded Tiger Woods for his entire career: A true rival.

But that would be a cheap way to end. Why define a champion by someone else?

Now on the TV monitor, the golden child is grinning on the 18th green, a weary kind of smile for someone so young, but that's just the shadow effect of an old soul. I spent a year mostly ignorant of the fierce budding legend hiding behind the baby face. It takes time to become visible, but suddenly his face catches the sunlight in a certain way, and a halo surrounds him. You feel a flush of foreign energy and a pang of nostalgia -- this is what it looks like when someone is just past the cusp of greatness.

After Dustin missed his eagle putt, I thought of a last way I might end this piece, on a note of dramatic anticipation. How about this, I thought, nice and simple: Let's do it again tomorrow.

But that wasn't an honest reaction. What I really felt, sitting in the fescue as he stood over the comebacker that would precipitate the dreaded Monday playoff, was a deep sense of foreboding. There are certain ways you never want something to end, and the horror of it all became immediately apparent.

And I thought: "Please don't miss, Dustin. Please, do not miss this fucking putt."