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Inside the Ropes: Dustin Johnson looks for long-awaited major breakthrough

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With seven victories, including at least one in each of his six seasons on the PGA Tour, Dustin Johnson has not exactly underachieved.

However, golf pundits believe DJ has barely scratched the surface of his immense talent, and he knows he has let some golden opportunities slip away, particularly in major championships.

This could be the year Johnson finally realizes his full potential.

"I definitely think it's coming soon," said Johnson, who is playing this week in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a tournament he has won twice. "Last year I played really well, even though I was hurt. I gave myself a lot of chances to win last year, and that's what I want to do again this season. I would like to win at least a couple of times.

"I have a lot of room for improvement. At times I played really good last year, but I want to be consistently good, all of the time. I want to put four good rounds together (every week). Guys at the top play consistently well, they contend all the time."

Contending in the majors has not been Johnson's problem.

DJ took a three-stroke lead into the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but he did not make a birdie while shooting 11-over-par 82 in the final round and sliding into a tie for eighth.

And he lost it quickly, going triple bogey-double bogey-bogey on the second through fourth holes en route to recording the highest score by a 54-hole leader in the U.S. Open since Fred McLeod shot 83 in 1911.

Later in 2010, Johnson held a one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. However, he finished with a bogey that turned into a triple bogey when he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a sandy area that was deemed to be a bunker.

That knocked him out of the playoff in which Martin Kaymer defeated Bubba Watson.

In 2011, Johnson began the final round of the Open Championship at Royal St. George's one stroke behind Darren Clarke. Playing in the final group with the Irishman, Johnson closed with a 2-over-par 72 and finished two shots behind the 42-year-old champion.

"It's time for (Johnson) to grow up," Damon Hack of the Golf Channel said of the 28-year-old on the "Morning Drive" show. "He's had three chances to win major championships and been unable to close the deal. He's left some big trophies on the table. This year, he has to find a way to finish."

Johnson is simply happy to be in position for a fast start this year after missing the Hawaiian events on the PGA Tour last season following minor knee surgery late in 2011.

Then he came back too soon, a week later at the Humana Challenge, but quit after 18 holes and returned the following week at the Farmers Insurance Open. Playing before he should have led to a back injury that forced him to sit out two months after playing only six events.

Since then, he's been trying to make up for lost time.

"I didn't have much time of an offseason," said Johnson, who won in his second event back last June at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. "I played a lot at the end of the year, especially because I was hurt early in the year. I took a couple weeks off and went skiing in Aspen.

"I was consistent last year, but I didn't win enough. I had only one bad week, really, at the U.S. Open."

Johnson showed he might be primed for a big 2013 season when he captured the Hyundai Tournament of Champions by four strokes over Steve Stricker, but he was forced to withdraw from the Sony Open in Hawaii after one round because of the flu before tying for 51st at least than full strength in the Farmers Insurance Open.

At Pebble Beach, he should be healthy and will be one of the favorites. He won the event that purists still call "The Crosby" in 2009 and 2010, in addition to playing flawlessly for 54 holes before his final-round meltdown in the national championship on the same course.

"It's beautiful here, and I've always enjoyed coming back," Johnson said of the Monterey Peninsula, which Robert Louis Stevenson called, "the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation."

"Even at the Open, I played really well for three days," Johnson said. "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'm always going to love this golf course, no matter what. I think I've got this course figured out pretty well. I tend to play it pretty well. Confidence is huge, especially playing golf. If you're confident, you're going to play well on the golf course, most of the time you do."

By playing only 19 times last year, Johnson slipped to No. 23 in the World Golf Rankings, down from his career high of No. 4 after he captured the 2010 BMW Championship.

After winning at Kapalua, he is knocking on the door of the top 10 again and has lofty aspirations.

"Getting to No. 1 is definitely a goal, and I still have a lot of work to do, but I definitely want to get there," he said at Kapalua. "I know what I need to do, and I'm going to do it."

It's not a matter of raw ability, because Johnson probably has as much as anybody in the game.

And, yes, that includes Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on the Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill Golf Course and the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Thursday through Sunday.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 3-6 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 1-2:30 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel and 3-6 p.m. EST on NBC.

LAST YEAR: Phil Mickelson claimed his 40th victory on the PGA Tour, coming from six strokes behind in the final round and badly outplaying playing partner Tiger Woods to win by two strokes over Charlie Wi with an 8-under-par 64. Lefty, who also claimed his fourth title at Pebble Beach and his 18th on the West Coast, played the final round 11 strokes better than Woods, who tumbled 12 spots to a tie for 15th. Mickelson went from six shots behind to two ahead with a 20-foot eagle putt on the sixth hole as Wi, the 54-hole leader who opened with a 61, carded a double bogey on the first hole and added bogeys at Nos. 5 and 6 en route to a closing 72.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: Allianz Championship on the Old Course at Broken Sound in Boca Raton, Fla., Friday through Sunday.

TV: Friday, 6:30-8:30 p.m. EST; Saturday, 6:30-9:30 p.m. EST, and Sunday, 7-9:30 p.m. EST, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Corey Pavin sank a 12-foot putt for par on the first playoff hole to beat Peter Senior of Australia and claim his first victory on the Champions Tour when Senior missed from about the same distance. Pavin and Senior, who also was seeking his initial title on the senior circuit, both closed with 1-under-par 71s, with Senior holing a six-foot par putt on the final hole of regulation to force the playoff after Pavin missed a 10-footer for birdie. Pavin saved his day with a par 3 on the 14th hole, where his tee shot stopped next to a tree and forced him to hit a chip shot left-handed with an inverted 8 iron. His ball stopped five feet from the hole, and he made the putt.

LPGA TOUR: LPGA-ISPS Handa Women's Australia Open at Royal Canberra Golf Club in Yarralumla, Australia, Feb. 14-17.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 12:30-2:30 p.m. EST; Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 p.m., on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Jessica Korda holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the second hole of a record-tying playoff with five other golfers to claim her first LPGA Tour victory at Royal Melbourne. The 18-year-old Korda, whose father Petr won the Australian Open tennis championship in 1998, took a one-stroke lead into the final round and held the top spot until faltering with bogeys on the 14th, 15th and 16th holes. She needed a birdie on No. 17 to shoot 2-over-par 74 and get into the playoff with Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Lewis, Julieta Granada of Paraguay, and South Koreans Hee Kyung Seo and So Yeon Ryu.
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