Johnson seeks better result at Oakmont
Dustin Johnson is desperately seeking major-championship redemption at the 116th U.S. Open, which begins next week at Oakmont Country Club.
On Tuesday, he made an unannounced stop at the storied venue to gain some semblance of familiarity with the wickedly fast greens, sometimes-uncompromising bunkers and deep, unforgiving rough.
Johnson, sixth in the world golf ranking, had plenty of company at Oakmont. He was joined by three other top-10 players — U.S. Open winners Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose, and former Masters champion Adam Scott.
For the most part, Johnson was thrilled with how he navigated the Henry Fownes-designed layout, which will host the USGA-sponsored tournament for a record ninth time.
“It rained (Monday), so the course was a little soft,” said Johnson, coming off a third-place finish at the Memorial Tournament. “Other than that, the course is in fantastic condition.
“It’s challenging, yeah. You miss the greens, and chipping around here is difficult. Obviously, depending on the conditions, if it’s firm, it’s going to play really hard. If it’s soft like it is today, then it’s still going to play difficult, but you can get to some flags and hold the greens with longer irons.
“It’s a U.S. Open course, and if you hit the fairways you can hit some good shots,” said Johnson, who was playing Oakmont for the first time. “It’s definitely a premium on hitting fairways. The rough is deep, which is something we’re used to.”
Johnson, who played the final few holes of his practice round with six-time U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson, positioned himself to win majors at some of the world’s most difficult courses. Even with victory seemingly within reach, he leaked oil under pressure.
The South Carolina native squandered chances in 2010 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. He faltered down the stretch in the British Open at Royal St. George’s in 2011.
Nothing, however, stings more than his failure to close the deal during last year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
Johnson stared down a 12-foot, 4-inch eagle putt on the 72nd hole that would have won the championship. With Jordan Spieth waiting anxiously, Johnson’s putt wandered four feet beyond the cup, leaving him with a nerve-wracking birdie putt to force a playoff.
He missed that putt, too. Johnson staggered off the green looking bewildered as Spieth captured his second consecutive major.
“I have to reflect on how good I’ve played and the situations on Sundays with the pressure on,” Johnson said. “I’ve performed and I’ve played really well, so I’ve got to take something away from all the positives.
“The way (Chambers Bay) was set up, I really enjoyed it. It was different, but the conditions of the greens were just a little too bumpy for a major championship. It is what it is, and it’s the golf course we were playing. You just have to deal with it.”
Johnson said Oakmont’s greens are fair.
“This year, it’s going to be a different. The greens here are great and you’re not going to have the ball bouncing (as they did at Chambers Bay),” Johnson said. “It’s all where you it them. If you hit a good putt, they’re going to go in.”
Johnson had difficulty escaping the fairway and greenside bunkers, particularly Big Mouth that guards the vulnerable short par-4 17th hole.
“If you’re in the back of (the bunkers), you might have a shot,” Johnson said. “If not, you have to wedge it out to the fairway. So, you want to stay out of the bunkers.”
Johnson closed his practice round by lofting a perfectly executed short iron behind the pin at the par-4, 484-yard 18th hole. He spun his approach shot to within a couple of feet of the cup — a desirable result on one of the toughest finishing holes in major-championship history.
“You have to control the ball coming into the greens,” Johnson said. “Whether the greens are pitched forward or pitched backward, it doesn’t matter because you have to be in the fairway so you can have a shot of getting it close to the hole.
“The greens have a lot of undulation, and it’s a golf course where you have to be in the fairway to control your ball. You have to hit your shot on the correct side of the pin. It’s a premium on controlling your distance, so you can leave yourself with uphill putts. You don’t want to be putting downhill all day — that’s for sure.”