Late on a recent Sunday, after watching Dustin Johnson miss his near-gimme putt and lose the US Open at Chambers Bay, a friend threw out a harmless sounding question to the still-stunned room. “Who had a worse tournament, Dustin Johnson or Tiger Woods?”
Hmm. Excellent question, one that puts the spotlight on a crucial element of athletic competition: performing under pressure. Tiger Woods had a very bad, and abbreviated, US Open: his two-round total of 156 disqualified him from weekend play. But Tiger’s fall from golf’s pinnacle has been unfolding before us for quite some time. Once considered a lock to eclipse Jack Nicklaus in major wins, he now induces cringes and sympathetic head-shakes with his poor play. In short, Tiger had little to lose at Chambers Bay.
Dustin Johnson, on the other hand, played outstanding, gritty golf from start to finish on a course that brought many of his opponents to their knees . . literally. Despite some shaky moments on Sunday, he found himself on the 72nd hole with a 12-foot putt to win his first major and join golf’s immortals. Two putts would put him in a playoff the next day. He had everything to gain, and lose. The rest is (recent) history.
Johnson did not give the 2015 Open away. He did not blow a three-shot lead on the last hole, as Jean van de Velde did at the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. Nor did he bogey three of his final four holes to lose a five-shot lead, as Jason Duffner did at the 2011 PGA.
What he did do was miss the second golden opportunity of his brief career to claim a major. For most golfers, those opportunities do not come around often. Three stalwarts of the sport — Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia — have played a combined 190 majors without a win. At 31, Johnson has time on his side, but with each near-miss the pressure mounts.
Back to Dustin vs. Tiger. It boils down to this: Would you rather operate in the safety net of non-contention, perhaps even mediocrity, or compete on the big stage where fame — or infamy — could be yours?
Does Bill Buckner wish his 1984 trade to the Red Sox had never happened and he had played out his career with the Cubs, away from the bright lights of a World Series? Would Scott Norwood have chosen a football life of obscurity rather than help propel his Bills team to the 1991 Super Bowl, where he attempted a last-second, game-winning field goal against the Giants? Who among us could sink a three-foot putt with the world watching and a major on the line? (Not me.)
Johnson may have felt “the yips” on Sunday as he lined up his three-footer. He may have rushed the putt, as Doug Sanders appeared to do when he missed from the same distance at the British Open in 1970. Years later, Sanders said, “I count the wonderful friendships I’ve had in my life, not my missed putts.”
If Johnson has Sanders’ perspective, he’ll be stronger for the experience. Meanwhile, Tiger has major problems of his own. (Pun intended.) Maybe they should talk.