SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Dustin Johnson knew the questions would be coming. After all, he blew a chance to win the last PGA Championship staged at Whistling Straits and – though that was five years ago – people into golf don’t forget.
Johnson grounded his club in a bunker on the last hole of regulation play in 2010, incurring a two-stroke penalty after charging into contention with birdies on the 16th and 17th holes. Instead of going into a playoff with eventual winner Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson to decide the title, Johnson was being asked how he didn’t know that the tromped down sand he had been standing in was a bunker.
Whistling Straits has about 1,000 bunkers, and spectators can stand in many of them. Johnson hit into one of those but still should have known he couldn’t ground his club.
“I don’t really think about it unless someone asks me the question,’’ said Johnson. “This year I don’t have to worry about it because there’s a grandstand there. Thanks you, PGA. I appreciate that.’’
Johnson was the last player to undergo a formal pre-tournament interview on Wednesday for the 92nd playing of the PGA Championship, and he was among the first to tee off in Thursday’s first round. There was no need to dwell on his bad mistakes afterwards. Johnson shot a 6-under-par 66 to claim the first-round lead by one stroke over Sweden’s David Lingmerth.
The early start benefitted Johnson. Winds kicked up later, making it more difficult for the afternoon players with the exception of Lingmerth. Among the other afternoon starters was the featured pairing of winners in the last four major championships – world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, current No. 2 Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson.
None could get anything going, Spieth and McIlroy shooting 71s and Johnson 75. Neither could Phil Mickelson (72) or Tiger Woods (75). McIlroy, the defending champion, was playing his first tournament round since tearing a ligament in his left ankle playing soccer on July 4.
Johnson, though, was another story. Starting his round at No. 10, Johnson opened birdie-birdie, a 357-yard drive at No. 11 setting up the second one. Then he made eagle at the 569-yard 16th, hitting a 4-iron second shot from 240 yards to 25 feet on the par-5.
That blazing start assured that Johnson would be contending for the third major in a row. He had a putt on the last hole to win the U.S. Open in June at Chambers Bay, in Washington, and ended up taking three putts to hand the title to Spieth. Johnson also led the British Open after two rounds but finished 75-75.
This season, though, has been largely encouraging for Johnson after he took a sixth-month break from golf to tend to personal issues. He seems to have his off-course life in order after becoming a father through his relationship with Paulina Gretzky, daughter of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
“The biggest transformation would be the birth of mine and Paulina’s son,’’ said Johnson. “That was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Having a son makes everything so much easier. You don’t have to worry about golf as much.’’
Johnson was worried when he arrived here. He remembered the nightmare of five years ago in the waste bunker, but he also wasn’t pleased with his play in the Bridgestone tournament at Firestone, in Ohio, last week. It wasn’t a good tuneup for the season’s fourth and final major.
“I was more worried about getting on the range and figuring out what was going wrong,’’ he said. “I didn’t play well at all at Firestone.’’
Johnson apparently straightened out his game in time for the PGA, which represents another chance for him to win that elusive first major title. Why hasn’t he had a breakthrough in the majors? That’s another question that’s been dogging him for years but he’s not tired of hearing it — yet.
“If you’re asking me the question, it means I’m close and I’m playing well,’’ he said. “It’s hard to win majors. It really is. Even guys who have won will tell you how tough it is. Ask me in five or 10 years, maybe I’ll be tired of it then. But as of right now, I’m not.’’
Now 31, Johnson is playing in his 27th major championship and he’s finished 13th or better in seven of the last 13. Clearly his game is close. David Duval was in his 27th major when he won his first one. Mickeson didn’t win his first major until his 47th start at age 33. Nick Price was 35 and in his 36th start when he won his first major.