Another major shot for Johnson, McIlroy

Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson


Click here for complete PGA Championship coverage



SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Kudos to young Nick Watney for trying to apply a Louis Oosthuizen-style headlock and run away with the 92nd PGA Championship – he will begin Sunday with a nice three-shot cushion. But there was a pretty intriguing undercard on a calm, sunny Saturday afternoon at Whistling Straits.

One golf fans might get used to seeing for a long, long time.

Rory McIlroy, 21, and Dustin Johnson, 26, seemed like two boyhood buddies who broke up a 5-hour conversation every now and then to hit a golf shot along the shores of scenic Lake Michigan. The two strode fairways shoulder-to-shoulder – OK, truth be told, more like earlobe-to-shoulder for the 5-foot-9 McIlroy – and drafted off one another on a calm day that was custom-built for scoring at Pete Dye’s sometimes diabolical Straits.

Each shot 67, and frankly, it’s unthinkable that either could possibly have scored anything worse. That’s how easy a walk in the park it was, the two trading birdies as if they were competing in the John Deere Classic rather than the third round of a major championship.

Johnson and McIlroy each had his chance at a major in the past two months. The U.S. Open was firmly in Johnson’s grasp, or so it seemed, until he was undone in a dizzying Sunday 82. It was 16 shots higher than the round he’d posted one day earlier at Pebble Beach.

McIlroy went from nearly setting the all-time major scoring mark on Thursday at venerable St. Andrews – he settled for a 63, which matched it – to holding on for dear life in wild and windy conditions the next day at the Open Championship. He had to steady himself down the stretch to get to the clubhouse in 80 and make the cut. Remove Round 2, and he beat champion Oosthuizen by four shots. But they don’t hand out Claret Jugs for that.

It says something that both golfers have righted themselves so quickly and are back in contention at a major. It speaks to their stunning talents, and to other attributes as well. Kids are a resilient bunch, whether it be on a playground or a golf course. And one got the sense watching Johnson and McIlroy on Saturday that it won’t be a rare sight watching these two battling over big-time stakes.

“Well, I mean, I’m not saying a lot about anything, but I’m sure these two will be knocking heads for about 15 or 20 more years,” said Johnson’s caddie, the playful Bobby Brown, “... and hopefully the first week of October. Hopefully.”

He was talking about the Ryder Cup in Wales. Johnson sits ninth in U.S. Ryder Cup points, and even if he plays well Sunday, might get passed by Watney in his effort to secure one of eight automatic spots. Know this: Regardless of Sunday’s result, if Captain Corey Pavin hasn’t seen enough out of Johnson to want him on his 12-man squad, then he’s been tuning in and watching NASCAR, not golf, on weekends.

photo

Rory McIlory and Dustin Johnson walk the fourth hole during the third round of the 92nd PGA Championship.

In essence, Johnson needs a good showing to help turn Pebble Beach into a smaller speck on his rearview mirror. The player seems to have gotten over his Sunday debacle just fine; in fact, he was better in a couple days, watching a replay, recognizing old habits that befell him, and putting it behind. But until he rises up and does something big on a major Sunday, he will be asked incessantly about the Sunday when he crashed at the ’Beach. Roughly half the questions asked of him Saturday evening were not about Whistling Straits, but about Pebble Beach.

Frankly, Johnson prefers to look ahead.

“I’m definitely proud of myself,” he said when asked how he has handled his U.S. Open baggage. “I played some good golf this summer and even after Pebble Beach, instead of dwelling on it and letting it affect me, it’s pushed me to work harder, go to the gym a little more, (and) practice some more, to get better.”

His caddie, Brown, calls this the summer of maturation for Johnson. Johnson has been working out more, getting to the course earlier, and has been more focused when on it. Playing money games with Phil Mickelson and other top players on Tuesdays has helped him prepare better, and having Butch Harmon in his corner has accelerated his education curve.

For instance, whereas Johnson normally played predominantly right-to-left shots, he’s now shaping a lot of his irons left to right, hitting what Brown calls “little sliders.” Saturday was his best ballstriking day of the week, and it was impressive. One could have built some small shopping centers between his drives and those of McIlroy and fellow competitor Seung-yul Noh. Johnson was simply bombing it.

McIlroy recounted the first time the two played, at the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down in McIlroy’s home country of Ireland. It was opening-day foursomes, and Johnson stepped to the tee to hit the opening shot for the United States. He was so nervous he hit his drive before he even was announced. He had a tad of extra adrenaline, too, pounding an opening tee shot that club members later measured at 407 yards. An Irish country mile.

McIlroy, then 17, had his own tee shot to deal with and wasn’t paying that much attention to what Johnson had just done. He stepped before his countrymen, absorbed the power he felt from the crowd, and hit one pretty good himself, pounding the ball deep. He felt pretty good about it, too . . . until he got down the fairway.

“I get up there and was 60 yards behind him,” McIlroy said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Hmmm, this could be a long day.’ ”

Sunday will be a long day, too, with far more trying conditions, and if Watney stumbles at all in the lead, then who knows, maybe it will be Johnson or McIlroy who will step through. Know this: With these two, it’s going to happen.

If not Sunday, then one day pretty soon.

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification