St. Andrews, Scotland—For a sports figure to have the word “potential” linked to their name can be a weight far greater than any anchor. Professional golfer Dustin Johnson is one such person. While he has had good success on the PGA Tour with 9 total wins—including one this year at the WGC event at Doral—it is his consistent failure at the major championships which has proved to be a major weight on his wide shoulders and athletic physique.
This past June at the US Open at Chambers Bay, Johnson fought gamely back into the picture only to poorly three-putt from 12-feet which sent the US Open trophy home with Jordan Spieth. Johnson has had other brushes in the majors, but the same result has happened—with others taking the trophy. This week’s Open Championship once again has Johnson leading through 31 holes of play by one stroke. There’s plenty of golf left to play and one can only wonder if Dustin can finally lay to rest all the past hiccups and have his name linked to the phrase, “Champion Golfer of the Year” and possession of the Claret Jug.
Watching Johnson when things are clicking is simply awesome golf to behold. His considerable driving skills—especially when he marries superior distance with uncanny accuracy renders all courses relatively short for him. You observe Dustin on the practice range as he tunes up and you simply behold a Ferrari-type engine set to hit the road.
The issue in golf is not about who someone “looks” but how one “plays” when called upon. Johnson is bestowed with tremendous ball striking abilities. Dustin’s kryptonite is the short shots—mainly his on/off again relationship with his putter. Where Spieth rolls the ball in a consistent manner and nearly all of his putts look like they could go in. One doesn’t get the same feeling with Johnson.
His 65 in the first round was textbook power golf mixed in with solid results in and around the humungous greens of The Old Course. Johnson mirros other such stellar power players of the past. Names such as Greg Norman and Tom Weiskopf, are two that come to mind immediately. Both Norman andf Weiskopf had total command in hitting a full range of shots—both were excellents drivers—for superior distance and consistent accuracy when called upon. Yet, Norman and Weiskopf while showing brilliant stretches never truly fulfuilled their vast potential.
Johnson can begin to change the narrative with the final 41 holes at St. Andrews. At the ’95 Open at St. Andrews another talented long hitter—John Daly—showed clearly his ’91 win at the PGA Championship was no small fluke.
The interesting aspect of Johnson is how little scar tissue he carries. Golfers can be fragile creatures. Getting near to the top and then suddenly see it slip away can be a most debilitating process for many. Some never recover. Listening to Johnson I am convinced he sees Chambers Bay in his rear view mirror. His easy going way has allowed him to move ahead.
The Open is a most vexing event. When one plays can make a huge difference as weather patterns can change quickly—even in mid-round. Scores can be had on The Old Course so no real lead is safe given the bunched up nature of players within a few strokes of the existing lead.
Dustin can change the storyline in a big time way with a win at The Old Course. Just a few years back at the ’11 Open at Royal St. George’s Dustin was in a head-to-head battle with Darren Clarke. When they reached the par-5 14th Johnson attempted a bold play with his second shot. The net result? Hitting it out-of-bounds and having the Northern Irishman take possession of the Claret Jug.
Golf is certainly not fair and there’s no justice where someone is owed because of their vast skills. Frankly, Johnson has the kind of game that could win several major championships. The issue is a simple one. Before you can win two or three, you need to win the first. This weekend will show if Dustin can finalyl lay to rest the tag of “potential” once and for all. We shall see.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.