CHARLOTTE – Dustin Johnson left the Quail Hollow Club at 2:15 p.m. Sunday afternoon, driving himself north and out of sight toward Gleneagles Road.
His final major of the season was over. He was going home.
If only the 4-under 67 Johnson shot in the final round had come two or three days prior, maybe the 99th PGA Championship could have been different. If only he’d stayed on his feet on the eve of the Masters four months prior, maybe everything could have been different.
“It’s all due to what happened right before Augusta,” Johnson said.
This was supposed to be the best season of Johnson’s career. Based on performance at the majors, it was one of his worst. Johnson will end his season without a top 10-finish at a major for the first time since his rookie year in 2008.
The odds-on Masters favorite, Johnson slipped and fell on a small set of stairs at his Augusta rental house in April. He tried to warm up on the driving range the next day before withdrawing due to a back injury.
“I think it was a lot tougher fall than we anticipated,” caddie and younger brother Austin Johnson said.
So much is made of the younger, up-and-coming players on Tour and the athleticism they possess, the fearlessness inside, but the 33-year-old Johnson still sets the standard in that regard.
He was out of contention after a second-round, 3-over 74 at Quail Hollow, but his tee shots were must-see events throughout the weekend. When Johnson pulls out the driver, it’s the most exciting shot on Tour, the golf equivalent of a Randy Moss “Go” route or an Aroldis Chapman fastball.
Of course, even Chapman doesn’t always deliver. He gave up his first home run ever at Yankee Stadium in the ninth inning Sunday night, blowing a save in a game eventually won by the Red Sox.
Johnson seems friendlier than given credit for, more calm than robotic, fist-bumping fans in the middle of rounds and recovering from bad shots with ease.
“He’s got a great attitude with the way he plays,” said Charl Schwartzel, who was paired with Johnson in Round 3 at the PGA Championship and Rounds 1-2 of the British Open at Royal Birkdale. “He’s definitely not too hard on himself. He’s a pretty chill guy.”
Austin Johnson says Dustin is the same guy off the course regardless of what happens on it. He said Dustin keeps him calm during tournaments, which seems contrary to the point of a player-caddie relationship but works for the brothers Johnson.
“I think that’s part of his brilliance,” Austin said. “It’s unbelievable. He’s probably the best out here at it. I know there’s a lot of guys that are good at forgetting shots and keeping your cool and stuff, but in my little experience out here he’s probably the best at doing it. I wish I had a little bit more of that in me.”
Heading into the week at Quail Hollow, Johnson said he felt closer than ever to the pre-Masters player who ascended to World No. 1 by winning three straight starts in February and March at the Genesis Open, WGC-Mexico Championship and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. He was untouchable then, shooting a combined 29-under par in the two stroke play events and taking out red-hot Jon Rahm in the Match Play championship.
He and Austin still feel they’re close to that after a T-13 finish at Quail Hollow. But when four major chances become three and a random accident affects an entire season, the ‘What if?’ game is unavoidable.
“Definitely a little frustrated for sure,” Johnson said. “Going into Augusta, I’m playing the best golf of my career. Everything is working very well, and then unfortunately I didn’t get to play the Masters and then struggled a little bit this whole summer.”
The back injury certainly stalled his momentum. And it had more of a lasting impact than anyone on team Johnson initially thought.
“He was favoring that left side for the better part (of the year),” Austin Johnson said. “Up until this last four-week stretch, pretty much. I think it maybe created a bad habit, because he was still a little gentle on that side. But that’s part of the game – injuries and figuring it out and trying to self-correct. And that’s life.”
Johnson bemoaned his lack of momentum after a tough third round, the lack of any putts made beyond 12 feet. At 4 over through 54 holes, he said his score couldn’t possibly be any higher given how well he hit the ball. Thought he had a low round in him.
Johnson began the final round 11 shots off the lead at T-47. Finally, the putts started dropping. An 8-footer for birdie at No. 1. A 27-footer for birdie at No. 8. A 9-footer for birdie at 10. He made bogeys at 12 and 13 and bounced back with birdies at 14 and 15, the type of no-sweat birdies that makes one wonder why he hasn’t won eight career majors instead of one.
“He’s still striking it well, it looks like,” Schwartzel said. “It’s just a little bit off on momentum. He’s missing the crucial putts from probably what he did at the beginning of the year. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his game, it’s just the putting.”
As Johnson stood on the 16th green reading a lengthy birdie putt, former World No. 1 and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy hit his tee shot at the par-3 17th well before the final pairing began their rounds at No. 1. Two of the most talented players in the world were not where they wanted to be, derailed by injuries and lack of consistency.
“It’s tough,” McIlroy said. “You don’t want to be teeing off at 9:45 (a.m.) on the final rounds of a major on a Sunday.”
Almost every other player on Tour would trade seasons with Johnson, no questions asked. He entered the week third in the FedEx Cup standings with three wins, 10 top-25 finishes and more than $6 million in official earnings. Austin Johnson said it has “absolutely” been a good year with a chance to be great, depending on how things go in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Just not a historic one that was very much in play this spring.
“I was as good as I ever felt, and confidence was probably as high as it’s ever been,” Johnson said. “But things happen. Just when you feel like you get on top, something happens that knocks you down.”
At No. 18 Sunday, his final hole of the season’s last major, Johnson ended up in a right-side fairway bunker but managed to hit his approach 211 yards, pin high to 36½ feet from the cup. His birdie attempt looked good all the way but didn’t drop. Anticipating a nice closing highlight, Johnson’s knees buckled slightly as he watched his ball stray just outside the hole. He stood tall again and tapped in for his 4.
It was a good par at Quail Hollow’s tough closing hole. Just not what it could have been.
(Note: This story appears in the August 2017 issue of Golfweek.)