SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Maybe Dustin Johnson can bash through all of his ill fate and lucklessness at this PGA Championship, not to mention the younger players who stand in his way in the majors, the Jordan Spieths and Rory McIlroys. One way to deal with a record of disappointment is to just blast away, and that was Johnson’s strategy in the opening round at Whistling Straits on Thursday. And you know what? It worked.
Johnson went against the sound advice of his coach, Butch Harmon, about how to play this narrow, wind-tortured ledge of a par-72 along Lake Michigan. Harmon wanted him to be conservative, hit a 2-iron off the 10th tee, his starting point for the round. “No,” Johnson said flatly. “I’m going to send it all day.” The result was a 66 that included birdies on his first two holes and a monster eagle that left him a stroke ahead of his nearest competition, David Lingmerth of Sweden.
Johnson is arguably the most star-crossed talent in the game at the moment, and also the most puzzling, in a good way. He’s a combination of burning front-runner and casual sideburned dude, who actually said coming into the tournament, “I’m just chilling.” He’s a contradiction, long and ambling, yet all torque and blasting drives. He can’t possibly be as nonchalant as he appears – he’s in contention too much. And he’s been hurt too badly.
It was at the PGA Championship here in 2010 that Johnson suffered his most notorious major heartbreak, when he unwittingly grounded his club in an area that looked like a patch of dirt beaten down by spectators’ feet, but turned out to be a bunker. He took a two-stroke penalty that knocked him out of a playoff. Asked this week how often he thinks about that, he replied, “About as many times as I’ve been asked the question.”
The 31-year-old missed last year’s PGA Championship to deal with what he termed “personal challenges,” amid rumors of substance abuse, but he returned this season to seize the first-round lead in both the U.S. and British opens with a pair of 65s. Which only earned him more disappointment. He appeared to have the U.S. Open trophy in his grasp, but on that roulette wheel of a course called Chambers Bay, he three-putted the final hole to lose to Spieth by a shot. At the British he relinquished the second-round lead when he shot consecutive 75s on the weekend.
Johnson has dealt with it all with a laid-back cool, almost blasé. He claims that the major losses have rolled off his back and that he moves on quickly. “It means I’m close and I’m playing well in them,” he said. But it’s also apparent that some of that is a mental strategy: dwelling on old hurts won’t help him win the next one.
“I try not to let it bother me,” he said. “I love the game, and at the end of the day, it’s just a game. And we’re out here playing for all of you and all of the fans, and so to get upset and get too worked up about it, I think it’s just not worth it. So I try to learn from all the things that’s happened and move forward and help me the next time I’m in the situation, to overcome it and get a major championship.”
Johnson’s strategy of just “sending it all day” had the advantage of hitting through and over a lot of the trouble at Whistling Straits, the mazes of jigsaw bunkers, and chin-high grasses. The addition of an afternoon wind that sucked golf balls toward the lake and rocked the flagsticks made scoring difficult for the late starters, who included the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, McIlroy and Spieth. The conditions plagued that glamorous pair of twentysomethings, who struggled to get below par playing alongside each other. They each shot 71, though in very different ways, and under the circumstances it wasn’t a bad number for either of them.
Spieth and McIlroy could not be more different in general, and they were in very different circumstances, too. The 26-year-old McIlroy has the more supple swing and relies on his combination of power and feel to score, but he was understandably erratic coming off a ruptured ankle ligament. Spieth, 21, is a technician and brilliant putter who plays position golf, but is struggling to keep his edge at the end of an enervating season that included victories at the Masters and U.S. Open, followed by a valiant chase at the British.
Spieth played his usual steady target golf and the result was six birdie putts in his first nine holes – yet he came away with nothing to show for it, misjudging all of them. When he slid a seventh birdie attempt by the hole on No. 10, he showed his frustration. He punched his fist in to his palm, and two bright spots of color developed in his cheeks. He finally got a birdie with a chip-in on the par-3 12th.
Spieth said the whipping breezes made it difficult to gauge the speed of his putts. “I seemed to be guessing wrong,” he said. But his first birdie “turned my emotions around,” he said. “I was able to bounce back and really grind out an under par round.” He was content with 1 under, given that he knew the wind would make it difficult to go as low as Johnson had in his less windy morning round. “Not feasible,” Spieth said. “It was a different golf course and we needed to adjust our expectations because of that.”
McIlroy, on the other hand, sprayed tee shots all over the course, scrambling around from cliffsides, from sand, and from pond water. After all that, and three bogeys and four birdies, he wound up satisfied to be five strokes back of Johnson and in position to chase. “I think anything under par this afternoon was a good score,” he said. Particularly since he was “a little bit anxious coming back and seeing how my game’s going to react whenever I’m put under a little bit of pressure and have a card in my hand and have to really score.”
The question for Johnson is whether he can add enough four-day consistency to his fast starts. He called his first round “pretty easy,” and added, “I was swinging well and hitting the shots where I was looking.”
If he can keep it up, he has the power and ability to draw away from the field, witness how he gouged the course with his eagle at the par-5 16th, a 573-yard serpentine of a hole. He detonated a drive that left him with just a 4-iron to the green. “I was trying to hit it at the lights,” he said. “There are some lights out there, I don’t even know what they are.” The iron shot came to rest just 25 feet away, and he ran in the putt.
But his previous experiences left Johnson leery of making too much out of his status as first-round leader. “All I’m looking for is a chance to get it done on the back nine on Sunday,” he said.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at email@example.com