Published August 17, 2010
SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – On the day after a nightmare-inducing end to the PGA Championship, Dustin Johnson was on his boat off the coast of South Carolina, about as far from a bunker as he could possibly be.
"Just kickin' it," Johnson said.
In his vernacular, that meant throwing down cold beers and relaxing with his friends, not kicking himself for a two-stroke penalty in a bunker that became the defining moment at Whistling Straits and cost Johnson a chance in another major.
He went from standing over a par putt to win his first major to erasing the 5 on his card and changing it to a 7.
Whether he should have been penalized two shots for touching the sand with his 4-iron on the 18th hole is not up for debate. Johnson knows the rules, which is why he didn't even bother asking for a television replay. His mistake was not knowing he was in a bunker.
It's a safe bet all those fans didn't know they were standing in a bunker, either.
What should not be lost in the circus of Sunday is what the future holds for the 26-year-old American.
Johnson played in the final group of two majors this year, and that was no accident. Over the last decade, only three other players have been in the last group of a major twice in the same year without winning — Ernie Els (2004), Phil Mickelson (2001) and David Duval (2000). That's pretty stout company.
"He could have won two majors this year," said Butch Harmon, who began working with Johnson in May. "As I told him in my text, 'You proved to the golf world that you're one of the best players in the world, not just another good player.'"
Few other players are tested between the ears as much as they are inside the ropes. Harmon is not the least bit worried about how Johnson will recover from this, nor should anyone else be.
"Look how he's moved on from Pebble," Harmon said. "He's very resilient. He has an incredible demeanor to handle these things."
Two months ago, Johnson had a three-shot lead going into the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He threw it all away with a triple bogey on the second hole, then dropped more shots trying too quickly to atone for his mistakes. He wound up with an 82, then faced questions the next two months about how long it took him to get over such a collapse.
Apparently, "one day" wasn't the answer anyone wanted.
"It doesn't bother me if people ask," Johnson said. "I just don't get why somebody wouldn't believe me when I say I'm over it. You have to go forward. In every sport, you have to go forward."
Johnson looks back only to learn.
The day after the U.S. Open and the day after the PGA Championship were entirely different, for no other reason than Johnson was asking most of the questions after Pebble Beach. Everyone else was doing it for him after Whistling Straits.
"Monday after Pebble, I remember sitting around thinking, 'I've got to get better. I've got to figure out a way to get it done in that situation.' Obviously, I did that. I proved that Sunday," Johnson said. "The experience at Pebble helped me so much on Sunday. I knew what to expect. I knew I would make mistakes because it's going to happen. I knew I would still have plenty of holes to play."
And what was he thinking about Monday after the PGA?
"The first thing is what happened on 18," he said. "Then after that, I got to thinking about everything good that came out of that. I did play very well coming down the stretch, and I'm proud of that."
What should not be forgotten is how he arrived at the 18th tee with a one-shot lead.
Johnson was three shots behind with six holes to play. He didn't panic when birdie putts inside 10 feet hit the lip on the 14th and 15th holes. Then came a blind shot from far below the 16th green. In grass that covered his shoes, Johnson hit a sand wedge to 2 feet for birdie to tie for the lead, then followed with a 6-iron to 12 feet for birdie on the 17th.
The last he saw of his tee shot on the 18th, it was headed into the gallery.
The bunkers at Whistling Straits will be debated until the PGA Championship returns in 2015. What gets misinterpreted is the notion that Johnson could have avoided this mess if he had only read the rule sheet posted in the locker room all week.
It's a safe bet that 75 percent of the field never read the sheet and still knew the rule.
Johnson said he knew without reading that every bunker at Whistling Straits was a hazard. If he had memorized the local rule the way school kids memorize the Pledge of Allegiance, he would have played it the same way.
"Rules are rules," he said. "Obviously, I know the rules very well. I just never thought I was in a bunker, or I would have never grounded my club. Maybe walking up to the ball, if all those people hadn't been there, maybe I would have recognized it as a sand trap. I knew there wasn't any waste bunkers. But all the bunkers on the course had a darkish color to the sand. This was white dirt."
It looked to him as if it had been covered in grass before being trampled by thousands of fans during the week.
None of that matters now.
"I'm not trying to blame anyone else," he said. "It's no one's fault but mine."
Johnson got to the airport in time to see Bubba Watson hit into the water and Martin Kaymer win a three-hole playoff that didn't include him. He said it was tough to watch without wondering how he would have fared.
He saw highlights again Monday without a noticeable change in his pulse.
Time to move on.