Commentary

Dustin Johnson suffers major stumble

Originally Published: July 17, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

SANDWICH, England -- Bobby Brown, who got canned as Dustin Johnson's caddie earlier this spring, stood near the dining trailers at Royal St. George's early Sunday afternoon. His Open Championship was done, but Johnson's final round was only a few minutes old.

"We're tight," said Brown, who had just watched his new man, Kyle Stanley, finish 11 over par for the tournament. "I'm good with it, man. I wish him all the best today. I mean, he's due. There's no doubt about it, he's due. I'm sure he learned a lot from what we've been through the last few years and that kind of stuff. If anybody has the attitude to get it done out there today, he certainly does."

What we've been through the last few years …

A final-round 82 at Pebble Beach to blow a 3-stroke lead at the 2010 U.S. Open.

A 2-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship -- costing him a spot in the playoff.

But this was a different day, a different major, a different caddie. Most of all, it was supposed to be a different Johnson.

Johnson stepped to the No. 1 tee box at 2:10 p.m. trailing Darren Clarke by a single stroke. Clarke was the leader, but to more than a few people at Royal St. George's, including the guy who got fired by DJ, Johnson was the favorite.

"Hey, he's going to be tough to beat today," said Brown. "Obviously he's swinging well. He hasn't been putting well all year and …

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Warren Little/Getty ImagesDustin Johnson appeared to be making a run on the back nine Sunday at Royal St. George's. That is, until his second shot landed out of bounds on the 14th hole.

"Hey, listen, he's not the most dedicated player on the planet -- and thank God for the rest of us that he's not that dedicated, you know what I mean? That's all I can say. Hey, he's my boy, man. We'll always be tight. The reason people know who I am is because of him. He put a couple of bucks in my bank account, you know, and I'll never forget that."

And then it happened. Johnson fell off another golf cliff. He chose paper, the Open Championship picked scissors.

This wasn't a full-fledged gag-a-thon like the one at Pebble, though there was some DJ oxygen loss. And it wasn't a complete and total brain cramp like the bunker incident at Whistling Straits, though there was some serious second-guessing going on afterward.

Instead, Johnson was undone by one defining decision, followed by one awful swing.

After Clarke built a 4-shot lead at the turn, Johnson birdied No. 10 and then No. 12 to cut the lead in half. He arrived at the par-5 14th hole with some handy history in pocket: birdies on No. 14 in two of his previous three rounds. The chance to pick up another stroke on Clarke was there for his taking.

And then it wasn't. He finished with a blah-ish, go-nowhere 2-over-par 72.

"I had a chance there going into 14, finally felt like I got some pressure on him," said Johnson. "Had a chance. But I hit a terrible shot on 14."

The terrible second shot -- Johnson said he hit a 2-iron from 250 yards, his caddie, Joe LaCava, said it was a 3-iron -- drifted right and into the gunk beyond the white out-of-bounds markers. A penalty stroke, drop and 4 more shots later, Johnson had "a nice, easy double-[bogey]."

In six minutes' time, Johnson went from major contender, again, to tragic figure, again. Just like that, Clarke's 4-shot cushion returned and the 42-year-old Northern Irishman put his game on eco-power and cruised home for the first major championship of his long career.

Thing is, Johnson could have/should have had triple that many major wins by now. He could be three-fourths through a career grand slam. Instead, he's found new and exciting ways to fumble away chances most pros dream about.

"I probably should have hit 3-wood," said Johnson, who has now finished in the top 10 in four of his past eight majors. "I'm two back and the rest of the holes coming in are pretty tough. Out here you don't really get too many opportunities to make birdies. It's definitely a go situation. If I had to do it over again, I'd do 3-wood."

But there are no do-overs in the final round of a major. Clarke made the most of his moments, Johnson didn't.

Johnson wasn't the only one to botch an opportunity. Phil Mickelson, who finished tied with DJ for second, actually shared the lead with Clarke after an eagle on No. 7. But in Mickelson's defense, he came from 5 shots back before doing a major fade on the back nine.

Johnson doesn't have that excuse. And to his credit, he didn't try to invent any.

"It was brutal out there," he said. "I think I held up pretty well. I hung in there all day. … Unfortunately made the double bogey on 14, which really took all my momentum out."

A throat ailment which required antibiotics didn't help Johnson's week. And who knows what would have happened had Johnson made a birdie on 14? Maybe Clarke birdies the hole, too.

Or maybe he doesn't and his confidence becomes as brittle as a plastic spork. After all, Clarke was 0-for-career on majors.

"Still, it's a major, it's the final group," said Johnson. "I had a lot of fun out there today. Me and Darren, we had a good time. I just didn't have my best stuff today."

Johnson doesn't do agony of defeat. He's a human shoulder shrug. He spoke in a near monotone after blowing the U.S. Open. He was polite and calm after the PGA Championship bunker disaster. And if the OB shot on 14 bothered him, he didn't show it.

Meanwhile, his former caddie Brown wasn't the only one rooting for Johnson on Sunday. In the twosome ahead of Stanley and Jason Day was rules observer David Price. If you don't remember Price, Brown and Johnson do. He's the guy who had to break the 2-stroke penalty news to DJ at Whistling Straits.

"Absolutely I'm pulling for him," said Price, the head golf professional at Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas.

Price has followed Johnson a little closer than usual ever since that day at Whistling Straits.

"Did you see what he was doing the first day here?" Price said. "He was out of the tournament the first day and then he goes birdie, birdie, hole-in-one, birdie and gets right back in it. … He's got a tremendous resiliency."

And Price followed Johnson during Saturday's round, when the twosome he was observing was directly behind DJ's twosome.

But the last time they talked was last fall at the Ryder Cup in Wales. By pure accident, they ended up on the same elevator together. Price reintroduced himself to Johnson and told him how badly he felt about the incident at the PGA Championship.

"Hey, no hard feelings at all," Johnson told him. "It wasn't your fault."

Johnson's response still amazes Price.

"I thought, 'Man, that is really something for him to say that.'"

When I talked to Price, he was hustling off the course to go find a TV to watch Johnson and the rest of the tournament. Brown was headed to London, in time, he said, to watch Johnson's back nine.

What they saw wasn't a collapse, but a huge mistake that cost Johnson any real chance of overtaking Clarke. Another major, another lesson.

"Obviously like I say all the time, the more I put myself in this situation, the better," Johnson said. "The more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens in this situation."

Perhaps one of these days Johnson will learn about a new situation. Clarke can tell him about it.

It's called winning a major.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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