SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Jason Day has been under the weather this week. Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are looking for something, their games not in full song. Henrik Stenson might be fighting a hangover from a great British Open. So there really was but one absolute coming into this 98th PGA Championship at Baltusrol: Surely the red-hot Dustin Johnson would play well and be in the mix come Sunday.
But little would go right for the newly minted U.S. Open champion, who has two giant victories this summer (U.S. Open, WGC-Bridgestone) and counts 12 top 10s among his 17 starts this season. Johnson got on a bogey run midway through his front nine, made but one birdie, and signed for a number that his future father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, knows too well: 77, or otherwise known as hockey sticks.
In a word, it was shocking. Especially to the man who had to sign for it.
“A little bit, for sure,” Johnson said as he loaded his clubs into his courtesy SUV in front of the Baltusrol clubhouse. “I felt like I had good practice rounds, (and) this morning I had a good warmup session. Just struggled. Simple. It’s nothing that’s off by too much.
“I felt that even throughout the day, I made some good swings. It was just that the ones that were bad ended up in terrible spots. Then the putts, I felt I hit a lot of good putts that just didn’t go in. Late in the day, the ball was hobbling a little bit.”
Johnson finished the round at T-143, and faces some considerable work ahead if he is to make the cut. He has three top-10 finishes in his three major starts this season, highlighted by his U.S. Open victory at Oakmont just days before his 32nd birthday. A tie for ninth at the British Open stands as his worst – yes, worst – result in his last six starts. And Baltusrol is a big ballpark that should be a perfect fit for Johnson’s prowess with the driver.
And then Thursday afternoon… nothing. He ripped a driver and hit an approach to 25 feet at the first hole, and narrowly missed birdie. Then he stepped on a Six Flags thrill ride. A double at 3, where he drove it wide left into the trees, and bogeys at Nos. 5-7.
“Even after I doubled 3, it was fine,” he said. “But the three bogeys in a row were just, you know, bad bogeys – all three of them were. So that got me not off to the greatest start. It seemed that if I got out of position at all, I got in a really bad spot.”
He left a ball in a fairway bunker on the par-4 11th (another double), but seemed to then steady himself. Even at 6 over, he knew he could make something big happen on Baltusrol Lower’s final two holes, back-to-back par 5s. (The reachable 18th yielded five eagles.)
But even then, Johnson went backward. A solid second shot at the 636-yard 17th slipped into a greenside bunker (he’d make par), and on 18, he pull-hooked a 2-iron off the tee into a pond. He dropped, his third hit a tree, and he had to two-putt from 30 feet for bogey-6.
“I needed to get a look for (eagle-) 3 at 18, and I obviously hit a poor tee shot,” Johnson said. “I hadn’t hit a hook in a while, and I hooked my 2-iron in the lake. Then I hooked the second one right into the tree. So it was great.”
Well, maybe not. Shocking. That’s what it was. In the end, there wasn’t much use in digesting all that had happened, so Johnson already was pointed toward Friday and Round 2. He hasn’t missed a cut on the PGA Tour since the 2015 Honda Classic a year and a half ago. And the 77 was his highest score since shooting 78 in the first round of the 2015 Valero Texas Open.
“Tomorrow is another day,” he said.
It could not get here soon enough.