PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The golf world was convulsing. Roars rang up and down Stillwater Cove, around the peninsula of the seventh hole and back down Carmel Bay's shores, filling the chilled summer air with a familiar sound. Tiger Woods was pumping the fist again, and running around trees to see magnificent cut shots, and thrusting his arm high on Pebble Beach's unforgettable 18th hole tableau.
And yet, in the farthest possible physical place from the return of TigerMania, all the way out on Pebble's nether reaches of the 10th green, a 25-year-old from South Carolina named Dustin Johnson stood in gray shirt sleeves, playing golf. His sleeves ruffled in the winds of the Pacific. He made a par and walked to the 11th tee.
He had to be freezing in the mid-50s temperatures, and he had to know Tiger made a run, and he had to know, in the final twosome on the Saturday of the U.S. Open on America's most spectacular golf course, that his story would not be the story of the day.
Except for this: It is absolutely his story. And he played his back nine aware of Tiger's 66, and answered it this way – with a 34 on the back and a 66 of his own that left Tiger five shots back, and Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell three shots back.
If it appeared that Dustin Johnson, 54-hole leader of the national championship of golf, at the very site where he was won consecutive PGA Tour stops – the 2009 and 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Ams – couldn't be bothered by Tiger's story, the appearance was not a mirage.
"People ask me about what he does best," Johnson's caddie, Bobby Brown, said after the round, in the June gloaming behind the 18th green. "Does he hit it long? Yeah. Does he putt it great? Yeah. But if you ask me, his attitude it his greatest attribute.
"Dude never, ever freaks out there."
Brown caddied at Pebble from 2002-05 and is the kind of guy who uses the word "dude" in every sentence without any sense of self-awareness.
So when he was asked if his man Johnson would have that attitude tested by the presence of Tiger Woods in the twosome ahead of him on the Sunday of the U.S. Open, Brown said only: "We're all aware of who the greatest player in the world is. But, dude – this is what you play for: to mix it up with Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open."
Or, as Johnson, the low-key South Carolinian who could add his name to Tiger, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tom Kite as national champions at Pebble, said of Tiger's looming presence: "We're all human. And he's human, too."
All over Pebble, fans who watch golf only four times a year wondered who this intruder on the leader board was. They know Tiger and Ernie (six shots back; 72) and Phil (seven shots back after a 73), but they didn't know Dustin.
Forthwith, a crash course: He is the kind of guy who is so frighteningly long and strong, 6-foot-4 lean inches of torque, he turned a 284-yard tee shot on No. 4 into a 3-iron to six feet for eagle. It was a play so bold that Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions and the man who sets up the Open courses, turned on the tee box and said: "Did he just knock that on with a 3-iron?"
Brown, the caddie, answered in his own way after the round: "Three-iron, dude."
Yes, Johnson leads the U.S. Open in driving distance, knocking it an average of 318 yards off the tee.
More Dustin info: His devastating length – Johnson presumes only monstrous Spaniard Alvaro Quiros is longer than him – obfuscates a major part of his game.
Namely, his downy touch. Johnson leads the field in greens in regulation, as well.
Or maybe you didn't see him nearly ace the 99-yard seventh hole, spinning a lob wedge to six inches. Or maybe you didn't see him offer a bold flop shot from a humpback lie on a tight flag for an up-and-down par on 12. Or maybe you didn't see him chip to a short-sided flag on 16 for a three-foot par save. Or maybe you didn't see him read a six-foot break on 17 – after a 7-iron in from 190 – for a birdie putt that left Brown almost laughing greenside.
"I've done over 1,000 loops here, and I've never, ever, ever seen that flag placement, dude," Brown said of a front right flag. "I'm so glad he didn't ask me for a read. We'd have missed it by five feet."
More Dustin Johnson factoids: He hired Butch Harmon just six weeks ago as a swing coach, adding the sheen of a winner. Johnson now draws up game plans with the coach who helped launch Woods and, before that, Greg Norman.
He was a college star at Coastal Carolina, a three-time All-American, but never grabbed the media's attention like Rickie Fowler (didn't qualify) or Rory McIlroy (missed cut) or Ryo Ishikawa (tied for seventh after a Saturday 75).
He was followed Saturday by an elderly couple in turquoise Coastal Carolina hats. It was Johnson's health and fitness professor from college, John Farrelly, with his wife. Farrelly is from Ireland, and is a massive Johnson fan, and shook Dustin's hand before Saturday's round at Pebble and wants people to know that Johnson is "a lovely fellow."
Yet, there are cautionary signs, too.
Since he became famous, Johnson has had to explain his involvement in a 2001 robbery in South Carolina, a robbery in which he eventually received a pardon. He also was arrested for DUI last year.
And on the golf course, there are questions about his ability to close. His first win at Pebble was a 54-hole win, shortened by weather, the kind of thing that causes the golf cognoscenti to wonder if a guy can validate. And his win at Pebble in February involved a Sunday 74, and a double-bogey on No. 9 and bogeys on 12 and 17. He has had other Sunday failings, too – a 78 at Bay Hill, a 77 at Quail Hollow.
Here's another thing about Dustin Johnson: This might only be the beginning of his tale. He turns 26 on Tuesday. He's the first player since Tiger to go straight from college and win in each of his first three years. This is only his third year on Tour.
He may be the guy who was farthest from the Tiger roars on 18, he may be the guy whose Saturday night plan was to unexcitedly "order room service and watch TV," and he may be the guy America expects to disappear Sunday.
But he's also the guy whose caddie says is surrounded by an ethereal calm. Or, more precisely, said Brown: "Dude, it's weird. It's like it's only me and him out there. Nobody else, dude."
Dustin Johnson is also the guy who said this Saturday night, words that may loom large by sunset Sunday.
"You can't fake it on this golf course," he said. "This is what I live for."
- Dustin Johnson
- Bobby Brown