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Dustin Johnson was growing mildly impatient on the putting green at Royal Birkdale as he kept checking on the arrival of US Open champion Brooks Koepka for their practice round Sunday at the British Open. What really makes him impatient is waiting on his game to return to the form that took him to No. 1 in the world.
It all feels good. He also knows it won’t matter until he’s on the first tee Thursday morning for his first competition in 34 days, dating to a missed cut at the U.S. Open.
“Since I got hurt at Augusta, my game hasn’t been nearly as good as it was,” Johnson said, referring to that spill down the stairs in his rental home that forced him out of the Masters. “Not only that, I couldn’t practice for almost four weeks. Taking four weeks off isn’t bad if you can practice. I couldn’t practice. I couldn’t swing a club. It’s taken me a long time to get everything back to feeling where it was. I’m trying to get back to that point. It’s definitely a lot harder.”
Before he slipped down the stairs and wrenched his back, Johnson made it all look so easy. He won big at Riviera to get to No. 1 in the world. He completed a sweep of the World Golf Championships in Mexico City. And then he breezed through all seven of his matches in Texas, never trailing in any of them at the Dell Technologies Match Play.
Johnson has split time between California and Florida in the last month to spend time with his newborn son, River, and he’s played enough to feel good about his game going into the Open. He also likes what he has seen of Royal Birkdale, as fine a links as there is in England.
Johnson arrived on a commercial flight Saturday morning without having slept much on the plane and managed to get in 18 holes in windy conditions, and was headed out for 18 more on Sunday. He doesn’t expect to hit more than about four drivers, not because he can’t take on the bunkers, but because of the trouble behind them. The turf is relatively firm, and the forecast is reasonable for the week. It should be plenty fast.
Johnson said he hit driver on the 499-yard sixth hole that bends sharply to the right toward the Irish Sea, straight into the wind. He had a 5-iron left into the green, which was unusual only because he typically only hits 5-iron for his second shot into par 5s. He also hit driver on the two par 5s (Nos. 15 and 17) and No. 16. Otherwise, it was a steady diet of irons off the tee.
“There’s nowhere to go,” he said. “I can carry these bunkers, but on a couple of holes, there’s a cross bunker, and if I fly the bunkers it will go into the cross bunker. So I’m laying up short of them. It’s definitely a second-shot golf course, which all links courses kind of are. You try not to get it in a bunker off the tee because all of the bunkers, you’re just chipping out. It’s like a water hazard.”
A few hundred fans surrounded the putting green, and spread out among the dunes on a lazy Sunday ahead of the Open on a beautiful day of sunshine and light breeze. At one point, Johnson was on the putting green with world No. 2 Hideki Matsuyama and Rory McIlroy, who is coming off a missed cut at the Scottish Open.
McIlroy doesn’t feel that far off, though his recent record is troublesome. He has missed the cut in three of his four last tournaments, and made the other (Travelers Championship) on the number.
Phil Mickelson also played on Sunday, spending most of his time on the 18th signing autographs. This is the first time since 2006 that Mickelson did not play the Scottish Open the week before playing the British Open.
Kevin Chappell only had his putter, and that wasn’t even his. He arrived on British Airways but his clubs did not, so he borrowed a putter that looked similar enough to his and rapped a few putts. Chappell said it was the second straight year his clubs didn’t make it, and last year they weren’t on the flight back to the United States.
“The great thing about social media is you can let them know it and they respond,” Chappell said. “They said it was unacceptable. I told them they were 0-for-3 getting my clubs to me and in America, it’s three strikes and you’re out.”
He just wants to get started, as does everyone else, especially Johnson. He hasn’t played on the weekend at a major since the British Open last year.