John­son hopes time is right to win U.S. Open

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY DOUG FER­GU­SON

ERIN, WIS. | Dustin John­son wrapped up his fi­nal day prac­tice round for the U.S. Open just as the sky be­gan to rum­ble and the horn sounded to stop play at Erin Hills.

The tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter for the world’s No. 1 player, as it has been the past two weeks.

As much as he hates miss­ing cuts, the Me­mo­rial two weeks ago was a good time for John­son to have a week­end off. It al­lowed him to spend two days in Wis­con­sin get­ting to know the long­est course in U.S. Open his­tory, re­al­iz­ing that he would be a late ar­rival to Erin Hills be­cause of some im­por­tant fam­ily mat­ters.

River Jones John­son, his sec­ond son, was born on Mon­day.

He finds out Thurs­day whether his game is in shape for John­son to be­come the first back-to-back U.S. Open cham­pion in 28 years, but his mood couldn’t be bet­ter. About the only thing to fear, out­side of the thick fes­cue that frames the fair­ways at Erin Hills, is the house where he is stay­ing.

It has a dou­ble-spi­ral stair­case.

“I sit down when I go down the stairs now,” John­son said with a smile. “I slide down on my butt.”

Stairs were the only thing that could stop him ear­lier this year. A win­ner of three straight tour­na­ments — against the strong­est fields of the year — John­son slipped in his socks go­ing down­stairs to move his car in the rain on the eve of the Mas­ters and bruised his back so badly that he had to with­draw the next day.

He hasn’t won in four starts since then, and his game hasn’t looked as sharp as it once did. He con­cedes he lost some mo­men­tum.

Even so, he is the bet­ting fa­vorite at the 117th U.S. Open on a course that would ap­pear to suit his game per­fectly, es­pe­cially with more rain Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon and a fore­cast for oc­ca­sional storms on Fri­day and Satur­day. The greens are soft enough that John­son is get­ting yardages to the hole, know­ing his shots won’t bounce away too far.

“I hope they play it all the way back on ev­ery hole,” he said. “Why not? It’s go­ing to be soft. I hope it’s windy. I hope it’s long, but it doesn’t mat­ter.”

John­son isn’t one to feel much pres­sure — he doesn’t show much, any­way — even play­ing his first ma­jor as the No. 1 player in the world.

If any­thing, the pres­sure is on the USGA in how they set up the golf course, and the me­te­o­rol­o­gist to give an ac­cu­rate fore­cast of the wind. There are a few holes at Erin Hills where if the tees are all the way back and the wind shifts into the play­ers, some won’t be able to reach the fair­way or will face blind shots.

“It’s nerve-wrack­ing, hon­estly, more than most Open sites,” USGA ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Mike Davis said.

John­son isn’t the only long hit­ter whom Erin Hills fa­vors. Rory McIlroy, who crushed U.S. Open scor­ing records on a rain-soft­ened course at Con­gres­sional in 2011, was de­lighted to feel the soft turf un­der his feet.

Ja­son Day is start­ing to turn his game around, fi­nally.

Along with his power, Day is an ex­pert with the short game, which should come in handy around the greens that fea­ture shaved slopes in­stead of dense rough.

John­son, how­ever, is such an in­tim­i­dat­ing fig­ure that even Cur­tis Strange is a lit­tle ner­vous. Strange, who now works for Fox Sports as the on-course an­a­lyst, won the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill to be­come the first player since Ben Ho­gan (1950-51) to win the U.S. Open in con­sec­u­tive years. “Move over, Ben,” Strange fa­mously said af­ter his sec­ond ti­tle.

“I’ve got to tell you, it’s tai­lor-made for Dustin John­son,” Strange said af­ter his first look at the course.

The Mas­ters (three times) and the PGA Cham­pi­onship in stroke play (twice, by Tiger Woods) have fewer back-to-back win­ners than the U.S. Open, but it’s the ma­jor that has gone the long­est with­out a re­peat win­ner.

The clos­est call for Strange was in 2005 when de­fend­ing cham­pion Retief Goosen had a three-shot lead at Pine­hurst No. 2. He shot 81 in the fi­nal round. Four-time cham­pion Jack Nick­laus never went back-to-back. Nei­ther did Woods.

“You’ve got to be lucky, have it be the right time,” Strange said. “Dustin is more dom­i­nant than any­body who has ever done it back-to-back be­cause of his length and the whole bit. But you still have to do it.”

John­son starts out Thurs­day morn­ing with the last two U.S. Open cham­pi­ons, Martin Kaymer and Jor­dan Spi­eth. It’s a com­fort­able group, es­pe­cially with Spi­eth, a close friend, his part­ner from the Pres­i­dents Cup and his reg­u­lar pro part­ner in re­cent years at the AT&T Peb­ble Beach Pro-Am.

Plus, he has the per­son­al­ity for the U.S. Open. It’s a men­tal test, and John­son’s brain is not very clut­tered. Paulina Gret­zky gave birth to their sec­ond child on Mon­day in Los An­ge­les. He flew to Wis­con­sin on Tues­day and got in 18 holes. He played nine holes Wed­nes­day.

Asked how he han­dled the range of emo­tions for such a whirl­wind week, John­son shrugged.

“You just do it,” he said. “I wish I had an ex­pla­na­tion on how I do it, but I don’t. ... But now I’ve got to play golf. This is why I’m here. I’m here to play golf. I’m here to com­pete.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Just days af­ter his sec­ond son was born on Mon­day, Dustin John­son aims to be­come the first back-to-back U.S. Open cham­pion in 28 years this week.

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