BETHESDA, Md. — Maybe the oddest thing about the meltdown that cost Dustin Johnson the U.S. Open last year is how much of it he wouldn’t change.
He thought he made good decisions.
He said he never got mad or frustrated.
He claims he didn’t get lost in the moment — or too caught up in what it would feel like to win.
Only thing he’d do differently, besides change the result: “I really got fast, especially after making 7 there,” he said. “I really got fast with everything. I started walking a little faster, swinging faster, just going through my routine faster.”
Going every bit as fast that early afternoon at Pebble Beach were his chances.
His triple bogey on No. 2 triggered a stretch of three cringe-inducing holes played at 6-over par. It scrubbed out the three-shot lead he took into the final round and made the rest of his day academic. He shot 82. That, combined with his confusion in the bunker at the PGA Championship later in the season, made Johnson 0 for 2 in majors that he shoulda, coulda won in 2010 but didn’t.
“I learned a lot about myself, though,” he said.
On Thursday at Congressional Country Club, Johnson will tee it up again at the tournament he led after three rounds last year. He’ll almost certainly have more eyes on him this time around.
Last year, he was considered an up-and-comer, someone to watch because he’d won the regular tour stop at Pebble Beach in 2009 and 2010.
By putting himself in contention in two majors, the 26-year-old South Carolina native is justifying the high expectations. His final-round letdown also put him in some pretty good company. In the past year, Johnson, Nick Watney and Rory McIlroy — none over the age of 30 — have all taken multiple-shot leads into Sunday at a major. None managed to break 80 in the fourth round.
“Most of the guys out here, especially a lot of good players, they’ve all gone through the same thing,” Johnson said. “They’ve all done it. It’s a learning process that I think everybody is going to go through at least once in their career. So you can’t look at it as a bad thing.”
When it was Johnson at the U.S. Open, though, it was hard not to imagine it could be a done deal. He had history at Pebble Beach and was one of only three people to play the first three rounds under par. He wasn’t showing any signs of weakening and, in fact, finished with back-to-back birdies to shoot 66 on Saturday, matching Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods for the best round of the tournament.
Another part of it, though, was that this was the U.S. Open, the toughest test in golf, a grinder of a tournament and the least likely of the majors to produce big, sudden swings on the leaderboard.
Make that swings up the leaderboard.
Johnson’s trouble began when he thinned his approach in the second fairway and his ball came to rest in an awkward lie in deep grass near a bunker. Forced to hit out left-handed, the ball barely made it out. He practically whiffed his fourth shot and wound up missing a 3-foot putt for double bogey.
“Instead of maybe trying to just save bogey, I was trying to get it up and down and ended up making triple,” he said. Then, in the same breath, he insisted: “There’s nothing I really could’ve done differently.”
From there, he used driver on the third tee when 3-wood might have worked and used 3-wood on the short, par-4 fourth hole when most players were hitting irons. The shot on 3 got lost and the shot on 4 wound up in the ocean.
That led to a double-bogey and a bogey and put him on a short list nobody wants any part of. His 82 was the worst final round by a 54-hole leader in 99 years.
Yet while the golf world was analyzing it, Johnson was sleeping easy.
“I’m pretty sure I was done with it by Monday morning when I woke up,” he said. “There was really nothing bad I could take from it other than it was definitely a learning curve. I definitely learned a lot from that round.”
Losses like that have been known to drag a player into yearlong slumps. Johnson kept plugging along.
He brought what he’d learned at Pebble Beach with him to the next major in America, the PGA at Whistling Straits. Playing in the final group that time, he slowed things down, kept his cool. He could’ve been in a playoff, but was penalized two strokes after infamously grounding his club in a trampled area that also happened to be a bunker.
He’ll never make that mistake again. Some lessons, though, he had already learned.
“Everybody remembers the 18th hole,” he said, “but they forget about I birdied 16 and 17 to get a one shot lead going into 18.”
Even after that, Johnson won the BMW Championship, the third of the four PGA Tour playoff events. He finished fourth on the PGA Tour money list and he’s been playing well this year, with a pair of top-3 finishes.
What he really needs now at one of these big tournaments is to perfect the closing act.
“Last year I had a chance to win,” he said, “and hopefully I’ll have one again this year.”