Commentary

Dustin Johnson's unlikely race vs. time

Updated: February 17, 2011, 11:40 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- There are no teammates to watch after you, no coaches to hold you accountable. In golf, you are on your own, even if your caddie gives you bad information.

In the case of Dustin Johnson on Thursday, that mistake was not in the form of a suspect yardage or a wrong club but an incorrect time.

[+] EnlargeDustin Johnson
AP Photo/Reed SaxonHow close was Dustin Johnson from getting disqualified from the Northern Trust Open for missing his tee time Thursday? According to the PGA Tour, he made it by just six seconds.

Specifically, his starting time at the Northern Trust Open.

Johnson got the wrong tee time from his caddie, Bobby Brown, who was off by 40 minutes. That caused Johnson to be late, meaning a two-stroke penalty to start the tournament.

But it was worse. Johnson faced disqualification if he didn't make it to the first tee within 5 minutes of his starting time.

So there was Johnson, sprinting up the steps of a long, steady hill at Riviera Country Club so that he could make it to the tee and not get bounced from the tournament while his playing companions, Steve Stricker and D.A. Points, were already in the first fairway, coming up on their golf balls.

"That hill is hard enough," Stricker said. "Then to have to run."

Call it adding injury to insult, pain on top of suffering. At least Johnson is still in the tournament, but those 2 strokes meant a double-bogey 7 at the easiest hole on the course and likely a foul mood for the rest of the day.

He managed to shoot a 2-over 73 but might have put himself out of contention to win the tournament.

It was just another bizarre rules breach for Johnson, who cost himself a shot at a playoff last year at the PGA Championship (won by Martin Kaymer at Whistling Straits) when he grounded his club in a hazard on the 72nd hole.

Johnson later said he never had read the rules sheet, which stipulated all sand areas to be played as bunkers, or hazards. But Johnson maintains he simply did not think it was a bunker, as spectators stood all around it. In the aftermath, most criticized the course, and Johnson handled the situation well, a month later bouncing back to win the BMW Championship, his fourth PGA Tour title.

Johnson, 26, declined to talk to reporters after his round Thursday but later told The Associated Press that he had never missed a tee time and that, "I don't look at my time. I leave that up to Bobby."

And that is something Johnson needs to change.

It is ultimately his responsibility to know when he tees off. If this is your livelihood, don't you check, double-check and triple-check your tee time?

Sure, you might ask your caddie for the tee time, just to be sure you read it right. Confer and get it straight. But to not check yourself is irresponsible. It is difficult to imagine Jack Nicklaus ever leaving such a simple task to anyone else. Johnson has nobody to blame but himself.

And yet, it was Brown who was calling for the heat, explaining he received the week's tee times -- pro-am, first and second round -- via text message and simply got mixed up. The time was supposed to be 7:32 a.m. local time, but Brown thought it was 8:12 a.m. He said he got hung up on "12" because Friday's tee time is 12:12 p.m. (Johnson's Wednesday pro-am time was also 8:12 a.m.)

That's why Johnson was leisurely hitting balls on the range with Brown by his side as his group was teeing off.

"There's blame to go around, and maybe some of it should be on me," Stricker said. "I had a feeling something wasn't quite right when I walked past him this morning. We had about 12 minutes to go before our tee time. And I saw him just set a bucket of balls down and a stretching stick, and it didn't look like he was in a hurry at all.

"I actually stopped and looked at him. I was going to say something, and I don't know why I didn't. I just thought, 'He's got to know the time.' I kept walking and I got on the tee, and with a minute to go and I don't see him. And then I looked through the trees down there, and he was still hitting balls. That's when I said we've got to call him."

A PGA Tour official radioed down to the driving range and alerted Johnson, who was stunned, thinking he had another 40 minutes. He got a cart ride to the bottom of the steps, then ran to the top and made it with 6 seconds to spare, according to the PGA Tour.

[+] EnlargeDustin Johnson
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesA controversial penalty in August at the PGA Championship kept Dustin Johnson out of a playoff for the year's final major.

Undoubtedly a bit frazzled, Johnson made a par on the hole, added the 2 strokes, then bogeyed the second hole as well. He added two birdies and a bogey on the front, then double-bogeyed the 10th hole.

If the whole thing was not bizarre enough, there was Golf Channel reporter Jim Gray waiting along the walkway between the 13th green and 14th tee.

Gray asked Johnson what happened and why he was late, drawing the ire of the caddies in the group, including Brown, because the query came during the playing of a round. Brown later got into an argument with Gray outside the scoring area.

It was at Whistling Straits that Gray became embroiled in a highly publicized dust-up with U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin (who is two shots off the lead here) on the eve of the PGA -- the one we'll never know whether Johnson would have won had he not suffered that penalty on the final hole.

Johnson did settle down Thursday, making birdies at the 15th and 18th holes.

"It's a little unfortunate," Stricker said. "He had a good attitude about it. I know Bobby, his caddie, feels bad."

He should, but Johnson should feel worse. It is ultimately on him.

But given the way he bounced back from a final-round 82 at the U.S. Open last year and the debacle at the PGA, it is clear Johnson has the mental makeup to move on.

He won't hold it against his caddie, and he likely won't let it linger. Perhaps there is an aloofness that serves him well.

And yet, he could do himself a huge favor, save himself a lot of grief, by simply taking serious his professional obligation to be responsible for himself.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE