Wayward Johnson Dusted Again at British Open

(published July 18, 2011)

Major championship golf is the most relentless test of nerves and resilience known to sporting man.

Disaster can strike on any swing.  The task for the aspiring champion is to manage his muscles and his emotions, to maintain control in the face of elation, anticipation, anxiety, and despair.

For the third time in thirteen months, Dustin Johnson demonstrated Sunday at Royal St. George’s that he doesn’t have the stuff of champions.

Darren Clarke held up the Claret Jug at the end of the day, perhaps the only time he’ll raise it while empty.  It was a sweet and richly deserved triumph for the 42-year-old from Northern Ireland, a major at last for the hero of the 2006 Ryder Cup and conqueror of Tiger Woods in the 2000 WGC Match Play final.

During Saturday’s third round, in difficult but appropriate conditions of wind and rain, Clarke’s ball-striking was the story; he gave himself short birdie putts time after time – and missed many of them, three- to four-footers that are the nemesis of the aging professional.

Sunday, the wind blew harder, and at the first hole Clarke passed an early test, slamming home an eight-footer for par.  On the second, a beautiful approach left him the kind of putt he’d struggled with on Saturday – but this one went smoothly in.

Throughout the day, Clarke was flawless on those ticklish par putts — at least, he was until victory was all but assured.  He might have made them all anyway, sometimes it’s just your day, but he could also thank Dustin Johnson for removing the pressure that might have made things tougher down the stretch.

Johnson began the round a stroke behind Clarke, but couldn’t get his putter going, missing birdie opportunities on the first two holes and bogeying the third to fall three back.

In the blustery conditions, with the wind whipping flagsticks back and forth, Phil Mickelson put on an early charge, making birdies on 2, 4, and 6, and an eagle on 7 – there were more eagles than bogeys at the downwind par-five Sunday, and more birdies than pars – to tie Clarke at five under.  Clarke matched this with an eagle of his own on 7 to retake the lead.  Mickelson reached six under with another birdie on 10, but then his putter got balky, and he made four bogeys in the next six holes to fall away.

Clarke caught a break at the ninth.  He was in the left rough, with the ball below his feet.  His shot came out low, but somehow bounced safely over the two deep sod-faced cross-bunkers, a bit of luck that left him laughing and may have saved him two or even three shots.  He made par, holding his lead.

The defining shot for Johnson came on the par-five 14th.  He had birdied 12 to climb back to within two shots of Clarke, then missed a curling and wind-blown eight-footer for birdie on 13.  With Johnson’s length, not even the stiff headwind on the 547-yard hole would likely keep him from reaching the green in two.

His drive was a bullet into the middle of the fairway.  He took out a two-iron for the 265-yard shot to the green, perhaps looking to run the ball up to the right of the center bunkers fifty yards short of the green – risky, considering the out-of-bounds stakes lining the right side of the hole.  He tried a trap-draw to keep the ball under the wind, and fanned the shot out to the right – making the one mistake that must be avoided at all costs.

The resulting double-bogey ended Johnson’s chances, and put Clarke four shots clear of the field with four to play.

In the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open, Johnson turned a three-shot lead into a three-shot deficit in the first four holes, going par/triple/double/bogey.

At the 2010 PGA Championship, Johnson famously got caught up in a rules kerfuffle, grounding his club in a bunker he didn’t recognize as one, making a triple bogey after the two-shot penalty dropped him from a playoff.  Forgotten is the fact that he had a one-shot lead on the final tee, and drove wildly into the crowd to the right in the first place, taking five swings when a par four would have won the title outright.

Once is calamity; twice may be coincidence; three times suggests habit.

None of this takes anything away from Darren Clarke, a fitting and popular winner.  It’s good for golf to have a major winner who enjoys a good cigar and a pint or six, and looks it.  “I’m a bit of a normal bloke, aren’t I?” he asked the assembled media.  “I like to have a pint, I like to go to the pub, buy everybody a drink… I’m just a normal guy playing golf, having a bit of fun.”

It’s been much chronicled that Clarke’s wife Heather died from breast cancer five years ago, and six weeks later he won all three of his matches at an emotional Ryder Cup at the K Club in Ireland.  He has been rebuilding his life in the years since, caring for his sons, engaged now to Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland who has run a modeling and marketing agency for more than twenty years.

Clarke would probably have stood up to any level of pressure in those final holes.  It’s hard to treat four-footers as a matter of life and death when you know what such matters look like.

Johnson may learn how to win a major some day.  “The more I put myself in this situation,” he said after the round, “the more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens in this situation.”

But at age 27, he’s reaching a point where his experiences look less like lessons and more like an Achilles heel.




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