Wednesday 7 December 2016

Dustin Johnson adds more weight to reputation as game's serial choker

Oliver Brown

Published 23/06/2015 | 02:30

Dustin Johnson lines up a putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the 115th U.S. Open Championship
Dustin Johnson lines up a putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the 115th U.S. Open Championship

How ironic that Dustin Johnson used to be regarded within golf as a 'flat-liner', as a brutally long hitter whose exaggerated swagger suggested a man playing without a pulse.

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We saw that incarnation, for 71 holes at least, at Chambers Bay as he sauntered after his 370-yard drives with a saloon-bar strut, while maintaining that off-putting tobacco-chewer's habit of expectorating on every tee-box. He looked the epitome of languorous Carolina cool.

Until, that is, it came to the business of closing out his first Major title.

Nothing expressed Johnson's curious blend of physical power and psychological brittleness better than the fact that he reduced the 611-yard closing hole to two giant heaves, a drive and a five-iron, but needed another three strokes to cover the remaining 12 feet.

He could not have examined more angles of his eagle putt for victory if he had used a protractor, but Johnson misjudged the pace and slope so badly that he left a four-foot putt back.

This one he rushed, taking all of 48 seconds to steel himself, and, as the ball grazed the left edge of the cup, it was as if this strange and majestic Pacific links was liquefying beneath him.

How to react to his fourth Major choke in five years?

Johnson initially presented a mask of stoicism, seeking out wife Paulina Gretzky, daughter of ice hockey legend Wayne, and their six-month-old son Tatum for a moment's solace.

"I'm proud of the way I played and I'm most proud of my family," he said. "So I did get to hold up my trophy at the end of the day, which is my son."

This was no idle Father's Day platitude, considering Johnson (below) had been forced to take a leave of absence from the PGA Tour last season amid allegations, all strenuously denied, of failed drugs tests and affairs with more than one of his colleagues' wives.

The essential purpose of that decision, he explained then, was to re-inforce his relationship with a family he believed he had let down. But his endearing sentiments in the wake of so galling a near-miss were not wholly convincing.

A more telling window upon Johnson's soul was the fact that he took no part in Jordan Spieth's victory ceremony by the 18th green - a protocol normally expected of the US Open runner-up - and that he also swerved his full slate of media obligations.

One fleeting consolation was that he would move up to a career high of third in the world rankings, although this seemed little more than first bridesmaid behind the all-conquering Spieth and Rory McIlroy.

Another was that yesterday marked his 31st birthday and, given Johnson's notoriety for a 'go hard or go home' approach to partying, he is unlikely to have tempered the celebrations too drastically.

But even for a man with such a horizontally laid-back slant on life, the hurt of this unravelling will linger.

While Johnson merited a degree of sympathy for the manner of his implosion, his insinuation that the course was at fault was a weak excuse.

For all the peculiarities of Chambers Bay, almost certain to be a one-off US Open venue, it still produced two final Sunday pairings comprising three of the world's top 10 golfers.

BATTLING

Johnson, battling to fend off first Jason Day and then Spieth, was in prime position among them.

On a burnt-out layout where he could devour even a 500-yard par-four with a drive and a gap wedge, he took a handsome two-stroke lead into the back nine, only to miss a 10-footer for par at the 10th, a six-foot putt at the 11th, and another of the same distance for birdie at the 12th.

Truly, his putter was colder than the snow-capped summit of Mount Rainier that loomed ominously to the east.

But ought we to have been so surprised? Johnson, after all, has turned the art of throwing away a Major into his own form of macabre vaudeville.

In 2010, he was the US Open's 54-hole leader at Pebble Beach, sabotaging his hopes with a wretched 82.

The following summer, he closed in on Darren Clarke at the conclusion of the Open at Royal St George's, before inexplicably lashing his drive at the 14th out of bounds.

The 2012 US PGA brought arguably his worst brain-fade of all as he grounded his club in the wild sands by the 18th at Whistling Straits, not realising it was designated as a bunker and that he would incur a two-shot penalty. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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