UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Did Dustin Johnson have any idea what was going on around him on Saturday at the U.S. Open?
Golf's crown prince in waiting, Jordan Spieth, got off to a start as scorched as Chambers Bay looked in Round 3.
Midway through his round, billowing smoke from a nearby marina fire proved an ominous sign.
Most stunning of all, Jason Day fought through vertigo symptoms and the urge to quit and rallied into a share of the lead.
Johnson didn't seem to notice, and if he did, it didn't matter. He has a share of the lead heading into the final round of the U.S. Open. The 30-year-old shot even-par 70 in the third round to finish tied with Spieth, Day and South African Branden Grace at 4-under par.
Unlike Spieth, Johnson hasn't been predestined a major champion, and the problems he has battled have largely been ones he's caused for himself. He's not a sympathetic figure. However, despite the near-constant vacant expression, Johnson is a compelling.
His brand of power golf is awe-inspiring. He drove the 372-yard 16th with an easy draw on Saturday, part of hitting every fairway and averaging well over 300 yards per drive.
"I hit every fairway today," Johnson said after the round. "First time I’ve ever done that, so I’m very excited.”
The combination of prodigious length and a timely spell of accuracy is what has allowed him to thrive here despite a lackluster short game. With his carry off the tee, he can leave himself managable shots into these greens like no one else in contention can. He's playing pool while the other contenders are trying to rig a free game out of this pinball machine of a golf course.
Perhaps most interesting, Johnson has been here before with painful results.
Five years ago, Johnson was the 54-hole leader at Pebble Beach, the course that perhaps best suits his eye. On that final day, he shot 82. Graeme McDowell took advantage and captured his first major title.
Had Johnson read a player memo at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, he wouldn't have made the crucial error of thinking a two-foot-by-two-foot patch of dirt wasn't a bunker, he wouldn't have ground his club, costing him a one-stroke penalty and, possibly, the title
A year later while contending for the lead at the Open Championship at Royal St. Georges, he was in the middle of the 14th fairway when he sprayed a 2-iron out of bounds. It finally became Darren Clarke's time.
Johnson has to be tired of playing himself off golf's biggest stages for someone else's breakthrough.
Study Johnson long enough and you'll quickly see a pattern of self-destructive behavior that goes well outside the ropes. He's found himself in trouble with the law, ranging from accusations of essentially being an accessory to murder to a well-publicized DUI arrest in 2009. Last July, Johnson announced he was taking a six-month leave of absence from the PGA Tour to deal with what he termed personal challenges. Golf.com reported, and Johnson vehemently denied, that the time away was fundamentally a suspension for a failed cocaine test. Johnson did admit, however, that he drank down his problems with too much vodka.
Since returning, Johnson, now a parent along with fiancée Paulina Gretzky, seems a new man dedicated to his craft and a long-term view of his potential career. He won quickly after returning, taking the WGC-Cadillac Championship for his ninth PGA Tour win. That was after losing the Northern Trust Open to James Hahn in a playoff. He posted his best-ever Masters finish in April, a T-6 effort that was his eighth top-10 major finish in 24 career starts.
In other words, enough seems to have gone right for Johnson that maybe this time he believes he deserves this.
You won't get that kind of introspection from Johnson, even if he does win. But Sunday represents a chance to break out from the painful memories and get his happy ending. Rest assured on that final-round march, Johnson won't stop to think about that. He'll just keep soldiering on.