The U.S. Open aspires to be the complete test in golf, which goes beyond the physical skills to include the space between the ears. It helps to keep the heart rate down and avoid wild swings in emotion.
Dustin Johnson looks like he doesn’t have a pulse.
Imagine playing the toughest test in golf and not even knowing the score for the last two hours of the championship. That’s what Johnson faced last year when he won at Oakmont, and the ability to block out everything around him was every bit as critical as his power off the tee, the par putt he made on the 16th hole, the bunker shot on the 17th and that 6-iron to 5 feet on the final hole for a birdie that he didn’t need.
After being told on the 12th tee that he might be penalized one shot for his golf ball moving on the fifth green, Johnson made it a point not to look at a leaderboard the rest of the way and instead play the shot in front of him.
Maybe it helped that it was a U.S. Open.
“I like really tough golf courses,” Johnson said. “I tend to focus more and play better. I like knowing par is a good score for some reason. I don’t know why. I play better when I’m playing for pars.”
The most athletic figure in golf, Johnson also has a temperament that is a good fit for the U.S. Open. And when it comes to his mental capacity, Johnson might just have everyone fooled. What comes across as being oblivious is really nothing more than a short memory.
“I think I’m pretty good at putting anything behind me,” Johnson said. “It’s already happened. I can’t change it. Obviously, the good stuff gives you a lot of confidence, but I mean, none that matter at this tournament. Who gives a (expletive) what I did last year? I need to win this tournament. I’m just trying to do the same things I did last year. And I know what recipe works for me.”
Johnson has experience at putting bad memories behind him. His attempt at a 12-foot eagle putt to win the 2015 U.S. Open slid 4 feet past the hole, and he missed the birdie putt to lose by one to Jordan Spieth. He was in a van with his family, including Wayne Gretzky, his future father-in-law, and no one said a word until Johnson broke the silence.
“I turned around and I’m like, ‘Guys, it’s just a golf tournament,'” Johnson said. “They were more upset about it than I was.”
Spieth shows more emotion than Johnson and can carry a conversation with himself over 18 holes. Spieth might speak more in one tournament than Johnson does in a year, though he still has the capacity of locking in only on the next shot.
How would Spieth have handled a loss like Chambers if he had swapped spots with Johnson?
“If I was in D.J.’s shoes, with my personality, I would have taken it harder,” Spieth said. “He can shrug it off.”
If Johnson had made that eagle putt, or even had a chance in a Monday playoff at Chambers Bay, he could be going for three straight U.S. Opens next week at Erin Hills. Instead, he will try to become the first back-to-back winner in 28 years when the U.S. Open starts Thursday in Wisconsin.
Not to be overlooked is the three-shot lead Johnson had at Pebble Beach in 2010. Calamity found him early – a triple bogey on the second hole, including one of those seven shots that he tried to play left-handed – and he shot 82.
Failure still stings.
He talked to swing coach Butch Harmon the next day for a quick review of what went wrong and realized he got rattled and started playing too quickly. Two months later, he had another shot at winning a major. Johnson was penalized two shots on the final hole at the PGA Championship by grounding his club in sand without realizing it was one of a thousand bunkers at Whistling Straits. There was no meltdown. He listened. He reviewed the tape. He flipped around the pencil and erased his 5 and wrote down 7. And then he left.
“I was a little frustrated after Whistling Straits, for sure,” Johnson said. “But only for like 10 minutes.”
Jack Nicklaus understands the value of keeping emotions in check as well as anyone. He shares the U.S. Open record with four titles, the first one as a 22-year-old rookie in a playoff at Oakmont against Arnold Palmer, who was on home soil and had the gallery at his side. The crowd was vicious in their comments. Nicklaus to this day claims he never heard them.
“That’s just what I did,” Nicklaus said. “It was all part of me having to go into my little cocoon and do what I had to do.”
There are moments of emotion for Nicklaus over the years, such as tossing his putter after winning at St. Andrews in a playoff or the “bear tracks” he left on the 16th green at Augusta National in 1975. More times than not, however, Nicklaus never let it show.
“I learned early that I couldn’t get all revved up when I made a putt and got all excited and charged around,” Nicklaus said. “Two holes later I settled down and started thinking again, but I’d make a double bogey or bogey in between. I found that I was not one who could get too excited. I learned to do that. I forced myself to do that.”
Johnson didn’t have to try very hard.
Lately, especially during his ascension to No. 1, he seems to thrive on his reputation for not getting carried away in good times or bad. During his undefeated week at the Dell Technologies Match Play, the format most likely to elicit emotion, Johnson was asked to describe his pulse.
“It’s beating,” he said. “Not very fast.”