Sunday 22 July 2018

Cool-hand Dustin shows the way with a Straits 66

Dustin Johnson fired an impressive opening round
Dustin Johnson fired an impressive opening round
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Dustin Johnson has the cool, laconic look of Clint Eastwood and walks like a gunfighter.

When he has his driver dialled in, Johnson sends golf balls soaring through the air like a guided missile and it's always a thrill for the galleries.

Even nice guy Jordan Spieth confesses to a tinge of envy when he watches the likes of Johnson and Rory McIlroy power their way around golf courses.

But when it comes to a 'make my day' moment in Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry mode, Johnson has a habit of allowing himself to be punked - or should it be funked - out of finishing the job.

Whistling Straits offers one more chance of redemption to a man who famously has found a way, either through fate or misfortune, to sabotage four potential Major championship victories.

Sand error at Whistling Straits in the US PGA championship in 2010; letting a three-shot lead slip in the final round of the US Open that year; a brutal three-putt from 12 feet at Chambers Bay in June at the US Open; and dropping out of contention from a commanding position in the Open Championship at St Andrews last month.

Last year he disappeared for six months from the PGA Tour to sort out some 'personal' issues which he has never fully explained, despite regular probing from media.

The Tour refused to confirm he had been suspended, but either way, Johnson came back to the game looking fresh and focused.

He opened the Masters with a 70 en route to a tied-sixth finish, and shot 65 in round one of the US and British Opens.

The lame finish on the 72nd green at Chambers Bay left him with a tied-second result instead of an 18-hole play-off with Spieth for the trophy.

A 49th place at St Andrews did not look possible after his 65, 69 performance in the first two rounds to lead the Open, but on that weather-disrupted long weekend with a Monday finish, Johnson could only manage 75, 75.

In fairness, some of his golf has been majestic and he was in that mode for much of his first round on the formidable Straits Course at Whistling Straits.

This Pete Dye-designed layout on a site which once was a US Army firing range from 1949-'59, was transformed under the ownership of Herb Kohler into a visually spectacular golfing experience.

When the Army had possession, the place was flat. Pete Dye moved thousands of tons of earth to make it a heavenly golfing experience.

Dye's creation of undulating terrain, and his extensive use of deception in terms of bunkering - there are 1,012 sand traps spattered all over the landscape - and other features such as double doglegs, and routing that often disguises the right lines off tees, all combine for a severe test of golf.

Herb Kohler wanted a links-style course that was modelled on the best of Irish and Scottish courses.

Dye delivered it, albeit the fairways here are quite lush and have more of a parkland feel, and Lake Michigan supplies the water boundary instead of the Atlantic or the Irish Sea.

But easy? No, despite a host of early birdies by top players, with Johnson as the spearhead.

After 14 holes he was six-under par, including an eagle three on the 576-yard, par-5 16th, which was his seventh hole as he started on the 10th tee.

"I was swinging well and I decided to use driver as much as possible. The ball went pretty well where I was aiming," said Johnson.

He's not a man to complicate his golf, nor to delve into it too deeply. This helps to prevent the mental scar tissue of past defeats impinging on his next challenge.

Asked if he could put a finger on the reason for making good early impressions on Majors this year, Johnson paused, shrugged and replied: "I don't know. I think I'm just playing a little better this year.

"I don't know. Your guess is as good as mine."

End of analysis.

The only blemish on his card came on the par-3 12th where he was bunkered off the tee and did not get up and down, but, hey, no problem. Johnson just moved on the 13th and birdied that, so he was back in the lead.

Rickie Fowler, who was in Johnson's group along with Jason Day, also had a birdie three on 13, and that was good bounce-back after a horrendous quadruple-bogey seven on the 12th where he took three to get out of a bunker.

Over the finishing holes, Johnson held par to round off his day's work with a 66 and the early clubhouse lead.

Matt Kuchar was among a bunch of players, including Jason Day and JB Holmes, who all shot four-under-par 68, but there was a long way to go. Fowler, meanwhile, finished on one-over 73.

USPGA Championship, Live, Sky Sports 4, 7.00pm

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport