INSIDE THE ROPES By TOM LaMARREThe Sports Xchange
In this edition of Inside the Ropes – With seven victories, including at least one in each of his six seasons on the PGA Tour, Dustin Johnson has not exactly underachieved. However, golf pundits believe DJ has barely scratched the surface of his immense talent, and he knows he has let some golden opportunities slip away, particularly in major championships. This could be the year Johnson finally realizes his full potential. “I definitely think it’s coming soon,” said Johnson, who is playing this week in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a tournament he has won twice. “Last year I played really well, even though I was hurt. I gave myself a lot of chances to win last year and that’s what I want to do again this season. I would like to win at least a couple of times. “I have a lot of room for improvement. At times I played really good last year, but I want to be consistently good, all of the time. I want to put four good rounds together (every week). Guys at the top play consistently well, they contend all the time.”
Contending in the majors has not been Johnson’s problem. DJ took a three-stroke lead into the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but did not make a birdie while shooting 11-over-par 82 in the final round and sliding into a tie for eighth. And he lost it quickly, going triple bogey-double bogey-bogey on the second through fourth holes en route to recording the highest score by a 54-hoole leader in the U.S. Open since Fred McLeod shot 83 in 1911. Later that year, Johnson held a one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. However, he finished with a bogey that turned into a triple bogey when he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a sandy area that was deemed to be a bunker. That knocked him out of the playoff in which Martin Kaymer defeated Bubba Watson. In 2011, Johnson began the final round of the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s one stroke behind Darren Clarke, and playing in the final group with the Irishman, he closed with a 2-over-par 72 and finished two shots behind the 42-year-old champion. “It’s time for (Johnson) to grow up,” Damon Hack of the Golf Channel said of the 28-year-old on the Morning Drive show. ” … He’s had three chances to win major championships and been unable to close the deal. He’s left some big trophies on the table. This year, he has to find a way to finish.”
Johnson is simply happy to be in position for a fast start this year after missing the Hawaiian events on the PGA Tour last season following minor knee surgery late in 2011. Then he came back too soon, a week later at the Humana Challenge, but quit after 18 holes and returned the following week at the Farmers Insurance Open. Playing before he should have led to a back injury which forced him to sit out two months after playing only six events. Since then, he’s been trying to make up for lost time. “I didn’t have much time of an offseason,” said DJ, who won in his second event back last June at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. “I played a lot at the end of the year, especially because I was hurt early in the year. I took a couple weeks off and went skiing in Aspen. “I was consistent last year, but I didn’t win enough. I had only one bad week, really, at the U.S. Open.” DJ showed he might be primed for a big season when he captured the Hyundai Tournament of Champions by four strokes over Steve Stricker, but was forced to withdraw from the Sony Open in Hawaii after one round because of the flu before tying for 51st at least than full strength in the Farmers Insurance Open.
At Pebble Beach he should be healthy and will be one of the favorites after winning what purists still call “The Crosby” in 2009 and 2010, in addition to playing flawlessly for 54 holes before his final-round meltdown in our national championship. “It’s beautiful here and I’ve always enjoyed coming back,” Johnson said of the Monterey Peninsula, which Robert Louis Stevenson called, “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation.” “Even at the Open, I played really well for three days,” Johnson said. “I just struggled a little bit on the last day. It was a great learning experience, and I take a lot from that week.” … I’m always going to love this golf course, no matter what. I think I’ve got this course figured out pretty well. I tend to play it pretty well. Confidence is huge, especially playing golf. If you’re confident you’re going to play well on the golf course, most of the time you do.”By playing only 19 times last year, Johnson slipped to No. 23 in the World Golf Rankings, down from his career high of No. 4 after he captured the 2010 BMW Championship. After winning at Kapalua, he is knocking on the door of the top 10 again and has lofty aspirations. “Getting to No. 1 is definitely a goal and I still have a lot of work to do, but I definitely want to get there,” he said at Kapalua. “I know what I need to do and I’m going to do it.” It’s not a matter of raw ability, because Johnson probably has as much as anybody in the game. And, yes, that includes Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.