Last summer, Tom Watson did not win the British Open. That may come as a surprise to some who find him the most memorable thing about the tournament. The 59-year-old Watson captured the sports world before missing his chance on the 72nd green at Royal Birkdale and losing the playoff to Stewart Cink. You remember Stewart Cink, don't you? He won the tournament.
As we close the books on the major championship season of 2010, there have been four different winners. But there seems little question who might be most remembered from this calendar in the years ahead. There is no doubt — Tales of Tiger Woods notwithstanding — which player most distinguished himself in the context of the competition.
It's not the biggest winner; it's Dustin Johnson, the Biggest Loser.
The easy-going 26-year-old introduced himself back in June, when he carried a three-stroke lead into the final act of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He was playing superbly, making three rounds under par look like a walk in the park. He was cool, confident and completely believable as a major championship winner.
But golf makes no commitments, plays no favorites. Johnson absorbed a lesson in closing out majors, compliments of the Pebble Beach School of Hard Knocks and Bad Breaks. In the blink of a teary eye, before his dreams even had a chance to take root, his U.S. Open hopes vanished.
Golf is like that. For every dramatic win there is a heart-wrenching loss. For every kiss of victory, there is a kiss of death. For every Jack Nicklaus there is Jean Van de Velde.
That's what made Johnson the most compelling figure at Whistling Straits on Sunday. He was changing the script, re-writing the ending, turning the tears to cheers. This time he started the day three shots off the lead — the shoe was on the other foot. Unexpected and unannounced, he forced the issue.
With Nick Watney doing his own version of, well, Dustin Johnson at Pebble Beach, the PGA Championship became a shootout at the Pete Dye corral. Johnson rode in on a white horse, making birdies at 13 and 16, joining Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer at 11 under and the lead.
Then came the kind of magic that makes golf special. Johnson rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th to snap the tie and jump to 12 under. With one hole to play, he had fashioned remarkable do-over, an opportunity to erase the pain of Pebble Beach with a win at Whistling Straits.
The rest was like an Alfred Hitchcock film — hard to watch, impossible to look away. Johnson lost his drive far right into the gallery on 18, lost his second shot far left. He then promised an incredible save with a wondrous chip. All that stood between the lanky, 6-foot-4 Johnson and his major championship redemption was a simple 7-foot putt.
But this game is never simple. This game never stands down. This game doesn't listen to “Uncle,” doesn't favor Hollywood endings, doesn't owe anything. Johnson's tenuous putt slid right and missed the target.
As he stood over that second shot on the 18th hole, Johnson put the blade of his iron on the sandy ground that had been occupied by the gallery. But on this man-made, sand-saturated piece of ground, the line between sand and fescue is sometimes hard to recognize. Turns out, the PGA considered the ground the galleries had been standing in a “bunker.”
“I never thought I was in a bunker,” Johnson said. “I just thought I was on a piece of dirt that the crowd had trampled down.”
Rather, it was his heart that was trampled down. Emotions aside, it's hard not to commiserate with Johnson. Calling the tiny a bunker was like calling Ga-Ga a Lady. But the PGA said it had warned players before the tournament that such sandy areas around the golf course were to be considered as such.
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