Dustin Johnson leads Open after superb 65 as he chases major redemption
It will take until is on the 72nd green again and in position to win a major championship to determine whether mental scar tissue from Chambers Bay exists. That chance will inevitably arise, such is the level of Johnson’s talent and his propensity to place himself in contention.
The scale of Johnson’s tumble, in snatching US Open defeat , would be troublesome even for those of formidable character to overcome. Without being overly cruel about it, perhaps the apparent unwillingness of Johnson to think deeply about anything will be of benefit. He isn’t the type for deep-rooted analytics.
What can be said with certainty is that Johnson isn’t scared of opportunity. At St Andrews, in what marks his first competitive appearance since that Washington state capitulation, Johnson leads the way. His 65 even matched the Johnson score from day one at Chambers Bay. Does instant redemption await?
Johnson benefited from the easier spell of weather for the first round of the Open Championship but still had to execute the gameplan which should afford him such an advantage on this lush links. That is, Johnson’s almost obscene driving distance means he is using short irons into unusually soft greens. It follows that he therefore has more of an ability to control approach shots than others.
Job done on that front – Johnson opened with only the third bogey-free round of his major career. He has never bettered 65 in one of golf’s individual big four.
“Nothing bad happened at Chambers Bay, so I wasn’t disappointed, really,” Johnson insisted. “I played really well, did everything I was supposed to. I couldn’t control what the ball was doing on the greens there.
“There’s really no bad feelings from that, only good. I played really well and then it carried over to today. I played really well today.”
Johnson was subsequently asked for the longest period any negative golfing outcome has lingered in his mind. “Not very long. A couple of days,” answered the 31-year-old. “I don’t really dwell in the past too much. You can’t really change it, so there’s no reason to worry about it.”
Johnson is a fascinating, if never expansive, character. He may just be the most naturally gifted of his generation of American golfers but is susceptible to the temptations which trouble so many. He has spoken in the past, for example, of his damaging relationship with alcohol. Long-term absences from this sport have raised questions which were never properly answered.
Johnson has earned more than enough money to keep his glamorous fiancee, Paulina Gretzky, in Christian Louboutin shoes for a lifetime. And yet you would hope there is an overwhelming and inner desire to triumph in majors. If there is, Johnson hides it well. “I’ve played well in this tournament over the last five years,” he said. “We’ve had some pretty good weather in all of them if not most of them. I enjoy it. It’s going to be interesting tomorrow but I enjoy the challenge. I like it. You’ve got to be very creative. You’ve got to use your imagination a lot when you’re out there when the wind is blowing that hard.”
What Johnson has deemed interesting is the prospect of gusting wind in excess of 30mph on Friday afternoon, when he will return to the Old Course in the company of Jordan Spieth – the man who profited from US Open events – and Hideki Matsuyama. It may well prove the case that Thursday morning supplied the most benign backdrop of the championship, in which case the record major 18-hole tally of 63 is safe for now.
Spieth’s 67 placed him firmly in touch on a tightly packed leaderboard. Zach Johnson, the only player to make the last eight Open cuts, signed for a 66, a score matched by Retief Goosen, Paul Lawrie, , Robert Streb and Jason Day.
Given he played in the most testing of the Thursday conditions, Willett’s display upstaged the others. Already, it would be a surprise if the Yorkshireman doesn’t earn an automatic berth in next year’s European Ryder Cup team. He defied a biting breeze for back-to-back nines of 33.
Day had his own reasons to rue the US Open, triggering a fall before the end of round two. Like Dustin Johnson, the Australian has tools which render him highly dangerous here. “I feel good,” Day insisted. “I should just stay healthy, so I don’t have to answer these questions any more. I’m not thinking about falling over on my face again. I’m not worrying about it, I feel healthy and I’m good to go.”
Streb hadn’t even set foot in Europe in his 28-year-long life before arriving for this tournament. “I have tried my best, tried to get as much information as I could,” Streb explained. “I played a practice round with Tom Watson on Tuesday. He was pretty helpful.”
Perhaps Lawrie’s prospects were earlier understated. Not only is the Scot a former Open champion but he tends to excel when the weather turns rough. Lawrie objects to the notion that he performs rain dances in hotel rooms on tournament weeks; he is, though, decidedly better when donning waterproofs than a significant chunk of the professional golfing set-up.
“There’s a long, long way to go,” Lawrie warned. “There’s an unbelievable amount of world-class players playing this week so I’m not even thinking about Sunday as of yet.”
Barring something miraculous, Watson’s tear-laden Open farewell will take place on Friday afternoon. The five-times champion was two under through 10 holes but proceeded to throw three sixes on to his card. A four-over-par 76 renders a missed cut surely, sadly, inevitable. It will be of little consolation to the 65-year-old that a certain T Woods couldn’t better that score. It is debatable as to which was the bigger surprise.