Johnson seeks unprecedented 3-peat
Dustin Johnson is having a torrid love affair.
No, not with Natalie Gulbis, but with the Pebble Beach Golf Links, where this week he will try to become the first player to capture the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for a third consecutive year.
Of course, Johnson isn't the only one in love with Pebble Beach. Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack Nicklaus are two of the most famous people who got there before he did and felt the same way.
"If I had only one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach," Nicklaus, the best golfer of all time, has said. "I've loved this course from the first time I saw it. It's possibly the best in the world."
Stevenson, the 1800s Scottish poet, took one look at the land on which the course at Pebble Beach would be built and called it the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.
Johnson has been almost in his own little world on the Monterey Peninsula the past two years. Along with the consecutive victories in the AT&T, still known to purists as The Crosby, he built a three-stroke lead through 54 holes in last June’s U.S. Open at Pebble before a triple-bogey seven on the second hole led to a closing-round 82 and tied-for-eighth finish.
"I have no hard feelings at all," Johnson said recently at AT&T media day. "It's beautiful here, and I've always enjoyed coming back. Even at the Open, I played really well for three days. I just struggled a little bit on the last day.
"It was a great learning experience, and I take a lot from that week. I'll always enjoy coming back here."
DJ showed that he has a short memory, putting behind him that major disappointment and another in the PGA Championship in August by coming back to win the BMW Championship during the PGA Tour playoffs.
In the final major of 2010, he held a one-stroke lead on the final hole but was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a sandy area on the final hole. A quirky local rule deemed all such areas at Whistling Straits bunkers that week.
Martin Kaymer defeated Bubba Watson in a playoff to win the tournament.
"I know the rules," Johnson told reporters recently with a chuckle, recalling that TV commentator David Feherty told him he had gotten a break because he had such a good lie on the final hole of regulation.
"That situation, still I look back at it and I've seen it 100 times, and I still don't see a sand trap,” Johnson said. “I thought I was just on hardpan. I was loving it. It never even crossed my mind that I was in a bunker."
Two months later, when DJ faced Kaymer in singles at the Ryder Cup, he waxed the German, 6 and 4, to cap a memorable season.
Johnson, who a few weeks ago denied that he and Gulbis, the LPGA Tour cover girl, have formed a new power couple, is off to a solid start to the new season. He had a pair of top-10 finishes in Hawaii and San Diego before a disappointing tie for 29th in the Waste Management Phoenix Open this past weekend.
First known for his length, Johnson has proven that he is more than just a big hitter. Nonetheless, he and instructor Butch Harmon have identified the area in his game which needs to improve the most.
"I hit a lot of wedges in tournaments (because of his long drives)," said Johnson, whose problems on No. 2 at Pebble came after an errant 9-iron approach. "I need to be more consistent with my wedges. I spent a lot of time working on my wedges. It's not all wedges, but I focused on 150 yards and in. So my 9-iron and wedges.
"Distance control. Usually my direction is very good, but working on direction and distance control. I made a lot of bogeys last year with a wedge in my hand. So eliminating that — distance control will do that."
After making the Turning Stone Resort Championship during the 2008 Fall Series his first PGA Tour victory, DJ claimed his first title of the regular season at Pebble in 2009. He was four strokes ahead when the final round of the AT&T was rained out.
Last year, he returned to Pebble Beach and defended his title by holding off David Duval and J.B. Holmes by one stroke.
"I don't know, ever since the first time I came here, I've really enjoyed playing this golf course," said Johnson, who also enjoys the Monterey Peninsula and Spyglass Hill courses that are part of the tournament rotation. He tied for 10th in his first AT&T appearance in 2008.
"Whenever you have success at a golf course, you get a lot of confidence. So I've got a lot of confidence at this golf course, and it sets up very well for me.
"Pebble Beach is definitely . . . my favorite golf course."
And like countless other golfers, it was love at first sight.