ORLANDO, FL (Sept. 14, 2020) -- “I like my chances. When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized. I don’t know. (Dustin Johnson) has won only one.”
The comment, made prior to the final round of the PGA Championship in early August in San Francisco, came from a seemingly harmless request for Brooks Koepka to assess his chances for winning a fifth major. Johnson was among the players chasing Koepka, the third-round leader.
Was Koepka’s comment a good-natured jab among buddies, a thinly veiled and not-so-friendly shot, a bit of gamesmanship, a little trash talking, or a challenge? Hard to say, because Koepka seems to have a perpetual chip on his shoulder; and Johnson is so laid back, he always has this seemingly, ‘what, me mad?’ attitude.
In the PGA Tour’s world, in a “gentleman’s game” in which sportsmanship is supposed to reign supreme above all else and where seldom is heard a discouraging word about fellow golfers, Koepka’s dusting of Dustin came across like a Muhammad Ali hook to the chin. It was seen by many in golf as a blatant show of disrespect.
What makes it all the more interesting is that while Koepka has won more majors, four to one, Johnson has more than three times as many Tour victories and earned more than twice as much in official career earnings. (For the record, Johnson finished tied for second at the PGA Championship, and Koepka tied for 29th.)
Golf fans would love to see a Koepka-Johnson pairing at the 120th U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at fabled Winged Foot in suburban New York City. But that won’t happen. While Johnson is the odds-on favorite to win, Koepka is at his Florida home recuperating from leg injuries.
Many Stories to Follow
There are other interesting stories at this Open, of course. Can Phil Mickelson complete the Career Slam (winning the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship), and in the process become the oldest golfer to win a major? Can Jon Rahm, the No. 2-ranked player in the world who wears his heart on his sleeve on a golf course, control his emotions enough to let his considerable talent overcome the pressure of a major? How will Bryson DeChambeau’s grip-it-and-rip-it approach fare on a traditionally treacherous and penalizing Open course set-up? Can Justin Thomas, the No. 3-ranked player and a three-time winner this season, make a bookend of his 2017 PGA Championship? Is this the year Rickie Fowler finally escapes the “best player never to win a major” crowd?
Then, of course, there are Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, both of whom have struggled lately, yet have the track record that says, “Don’t forget about me.”
If you’re looking for a dark horse, here are four to consider: Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele, Britain’s Tommy Fleetwood, and Ireland’s Shane Lowry. Many experts are mystified why the long-hitting Finau has won only twice in 13 years on the PGA Tour. The 26-year-old Schauffele has six top-10 finishes in 12 majors. The steady Fleetwood, who was runner-up in the 2018 U.S. Open after shooting a closing 63, has all the game needed to conquer Winged Foot. And, Lowry is the reigning British Open champion (the 2020 British Open was canceled due to the coronavirus), and tied for second at the 2016 U.S. Open.
Still, it’s hard not to like Johnson’s chances. He does. "I'm playing probably some of the best golf I've ever played,'' Johnson told Bob Harig of ESPN.com. "I am excited. Obviously I'm playing well. I've got a lot of confidence in the game, so I'm really looking forward to the next couple months obviously.”
For the mellow Johnson, that’s almost boastful – and, not good news for the rest of the field this week. The 2016 U.S. Open champion comes in as the hottest golfer on the planet.
He turned the FedEx Cup playoffs, the PGA Tour’s most lucrative payday, into his own personal playground. Johnson won the first leg of the three-tournament playoff, The Northern Trust, in an 11-stroke rout. He followed that with a second-pace finish at the BMW Championship (losing on the first hole of sudden-death playoff when Rahm sank an unbelievable, 66-foot, sidewinder, birdie putt). Then Dustin cruised to victory in the Tour Championship, winning $15 million and the FedEx Cup in the process.
A Very Lucrative Month
For those three weeks, Johnson earned a cool $17.7 million. Add in the $968,000 he earned at the PGA Championship and “DJ” raked in almost $18.7 million for a month of golf.
“Only one major”? Don’t feel bad for Dustin; he’s doing perfectly fine, thank you. He’s smiling all the way to the bank, and building a Hall of Fame resume along the way.
Johnson has earned $67 million in official PGA Tour winnings in 13 years. That’s the fifth most ever – Tiger leads with $120 million, followed by Mickelson’s $92 million (For those keeping score, Koepka ranks 34th with $31.4 million).
While DJ’s FedEx Cup winnings don’t count toward that total because they are “unofficial,” he’s likely not complaining since they still spend the same.
And, his record is becoming Hall of Fame-worthy. Johnson has won at least once in each of his 13 seasons on Tour. His 23 career wins are only one fewer than Gary Player, and Tiger and Mickelson are the only active players with more victories. (Again, for those keeping score, Koepka has seven victories.)
That demonstrates consistency and longevity. Another major title should cement Johnson’s case for the World Golf Hall of Fame.
To be fair there are many who wonder, with all that ability, why Dustin hasn’t won at least one more? Johnson’s had 17 top-10 finishes in majors, and holds the dubious distinction of achieving the “Second Slam” – finishing second in all four majors. In a five-year stretch, from 2014-2018, he had four top-four finishes in the Open. Four times he has held or shared a 54-hole lead in a major, and four times he has failed to win.
Is he golf’s version of the Atlanta Braves, who won 14 consecutive division titles in the late 1990s and early 2000s but only one World Series? Is he like the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 regular-season games, only to be eliminated in the playoffs by the New York Yankees?
Dustin’s failures are part bad luck and part his own self-destruction.
In the PGA Championship last month, Dustin led entering the final 18 holes, and shot a 2-under-par 68. Normally, that might have been good enough – except that Morikawa shot a 4-under 64 to tie the record for the lowest closing round to win a PGA Championship. Not much DJ could do about that.
In the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, Johnson drove the green in two on the par-5 closing hole. He had a 12-foot eagle putt to win – he came up three feet short. Shockingly, he also missed that putt, which would have forced a playoff, to give Jordan Spieth the victory.
At the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Johnson stood on the 72nd tee with a one-shot lead; make par and he wins. But, he drove the ball right, and on his second shot accidentally grounded his club in an area considered a bunker under local rules (Johnson said later that he saw spectators’ footprints and trash in the area and didn’t realize he was in a bunker). Johnson was hit with a very dubious 2-stroke penalty for grounding his club, and wound up tied for fifth. A bit of misfortune there.
Earlier that year, at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Johnson shot a 66 in the third round to take a three-stroke lead. But, the next day he was six-over-par on holes two through four en route to a closing 82 and a tie for eighth place.
Mickelson the People’s Favorite
If Johnson is the betting favorite to win, then five-time majors champion Mickelson probably is the people’s favorite as he tries to complete the Career Slam, and at age 50 become the oldest to win a major. A victory this week would make Mickelson the sixth golfer to achieve the Career Slam, and also would replace Hale Irwin as the oldest to win the Open (Irwin was 45 when won in 1990.)
Mickelson will have a tough go of it. Since winning the British Open in 2013, he has finished in the top 10 in a major just twice – placing second in the 2014 PGA Championship and the 2016 British Open. Since his runner-up showing at the British Open, he has missed the cut three times and failed to finish higher than a tie for 22nd. He tied for 71st in this year’s PGA Championship.
“A U.S. Open is going to be more difficult for me now than it probably was because I drive it the way I drive it, and so that week in 2006 my short game was the best it's been in my career and I got up-and-down from everywhere. I know that I'll have to do the same and hopefully drive it better,” he told ESPN’s Harig.
Ah, the 2006 U.S. Open. Mickelson hopes to extract a bit of revenge from Winged Foot this week. The course is the site of the epic, final-hole meltdown that cost him the title that year.
‘Phil Being Phil’
In one of the top ”Phil being Phil” moments, with a one-shot lead standing on the tee on the final hole, Mickelson took an adventurous route to the green, wound up with a double-bogey and lost by a shot.
Most people figured on the last hole, a par-4, Mickelson would hit 2- or-3-iron, maybe 3-wood, off the tee to keep the ball in the fairway. Then hit an easy mid-iron into the green, two- or even three-putt, and then go collect the Wanamaker Trophy.
Instead, the always-aggressive Mickelson chose driver, and that’s when his meltdown began. He drove it so far left the shot bounced off a hospitality tent. Then he tried going over a tree -- and hit the tree instead. His third shot plugged in a bunker, and he failed to get up and down, to finish with a double-bogey six.
It would be one of Mickelson’s record six second-place finishes in a U.S. Open, and lead to his memorable post-round comment, “I can’t believe I did that. I am such an idiot.”
While that’s not exactly Hall of Famer Roberto De Vicenzo’s “What a stupid I am!” quote after he signed an incorrect scorecard that cost him the 1968 Masters, Mickelson knew he blew that one.
Johnson and Mickelson, each has something the other wants: Johnson a second major, and Mickelson a U.S. Open title. Both have demons to exercise at Winged Foot. A win by Mickelson is one for the record books. A win by Johnson should end the dusting of Dustin.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.