The brother of Dustin Johnson was leaning on a wall outside the caddie area when the phone rang. It was the world’s No. 1 player, and Austin Johnson headed out to the practice range at Muirfield Village. It was time to get back to work. The question going into Friday at the Memorial was for how long?
Johnson doesn’t get bothered by much, and when he does, not for long. The opening round at the Memorial certain was no exception, especially considering all the setbacks he already has endured in his career.
But it was a stinker.
David Lingmerth and Jason Dufner had no trouble handling the glassy greens of Muirfield Village in the opening round. Both made bogey on the final hole and still managed a 7-under 65 for a one-shot lead.
Johnson didn’t manage a single birdie.
He had a triple bogey on the 16th hole when he hit his tee shot into the water and then three-putted. He had a three-putt from 4 feet on the sixth hole when he turned a par into double bogey. He also made bogey for the bunker on the par-3 fourth.
It added to a 78, and it left the U.S. Open champion in dire need of a low score Friday afternoon in his final tournament before going home to Florida for the birth of his second child, and then making his way up to Wisconsin to see if he can become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to win back-to-back in the U.S. Open.
The last time he didn’t make a birdie was nearly four years ago at the Bridgestone Invitational. In his 714 rounds on the PGA Tour, it was only the sixth time that has happened.
Johnson didn’t have much to say, walking to the clubhouse practically unnoticed as Jordan Spieth, playing in the group ahead of him, was before the cameras.
There wasn’t much to say.
Remember, Johnson had a stretch last summer of six consecutive top 10s, including that U.S. Open victory at Oakmont and another World Golf Championship title at Firestone. He went to Baltusrol for the PGA Championship, a big golf course that was suited perfectly for him, and he missed the cut.
Coming off three straight top 10s to start the year, including a runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi, Johnson missed the cut at Torrey Pines.
It happens. And his reaction typically is the same: a shrug of the shoulders.
Think back to two years ago when Johnson had a 12-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole of Chambers Bay to win the U.S. Open. The putt slid by the cup and ran about 4 feet by. He missed that putt, too, and suddenly Spieth was the U.S. Open champion.
That’s devastating stuff. He left the course in a car with all his family, including Wayne Gretzky, his future father-in-law.
“He goes dead silent. No one is saying a word,” Johnson recalled. “I turned around and I’m like, `Guys, it’s just a golf tournament.’ But they were more upset about it than I was.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get irritated, and Thursday was no exception.
He hit onto the back of the green on the par-5 11th in two, hit a quality lag down the hill to about 5 feet and saw his birdie putt catch the lip. He hit the hole again with an 8-foot birdie attempt on the 13th. And then the real damage was on the par-3 16th.
There were a dozen eagles in the opening round, yet nothing turn heads more than Johnson’s tee shot on the 17th hole. Yes, a breeze was at his back. Yes, he was coming off a triple bogey. But 413 yards? The ball was past the bunkers that pinch in the fairways, down the hill and just short of the green that guards the slope up toward the putting surface. It would have been reasonable to think someone had hit into a bunker and decided to lay up short of the bunkers.
Spieth, Justin Thomas and Kevin Kisner couldn’t help but look back from the green at a golf ball that really shouldn’t have been there.
Johnson still made par.
He was too close to the hole _ 57 yards _ to get anything close, and he lagged a 35-footer for his 4.
“The way he drives the golf ball, he’s able to take advantage of a lot of holes,” Phil Mickelson said after playing alongside him. “And he had a few putts early on that lipped out that should have gone in, starting on the 11th hole, after hitting the green in two. And it kind of wore on him until he had one big mistake on 16 and that was a tough thing.”
As for the 17th hole?
“A flip wedge in, and yet didn’t really have much of a shot where the pin was,” Mickelson said. “So he had a few times where he hit great shots, but wasn’t really rewarded.”
It’s just a golf tournament. He has another round Friday, but no guarantee of more until he gets to the U.S. Open.