Dustin Johnson busy forgetting in route to PGA Championship lead


SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – It was such a makeable putt.

It was such a missable putt.

Dustin Johnson loped over to his ball, lined it up, and leered at the hole, about 12 feet away. It was his final hole of the day in Round 1 of the PGA Championship and he wanted it to be the last shot of the day: a left-to-right slider after he overshot his Texas wedge putt from the fringe.

It was a lot like the putt he missed on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open in June.

Dustin Johnson reacts after making an eagle putt on the 16th hole. (AP)
Dustin Johnson reacts after making an eagle putt on the 16th hole. (AP)

Johnson is now known for two mistakes – the three-putt on 18 this summer at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, and the sand trap fiasco here at Whistling Straits in the 2010 PGA Championship, in which a two-stroke penalty doomed his chance at his first major victory. Both were errors that anyone could have made, and yet they are currently wafting around him like Pig Pen's cloud.

For the rest of us, golf is about the memories. For the professionals, golf is about forgetting. It would be simple to dwell on that one putt in Washington (that handed Jordan Spieth the U.S. Open title), or that one hole in 2010 (that cost him a spot in a three-hole playoff), but then the trap door opens to all the other shots that led up to those. If Johnson had made this other putt, or angled that shot just so, or recovered from this bunker better … maybe he becomes a major championship winner and the cloud never descends on him.

That leads us to Thursday, on the final hole, and the slider to card a 6-under 66, giving him a one-stroke lead over David Lingmerth after the first round. Maybe this was the putt that alters Sunday for the better. Or, for worse.

Johnson started it out left, and it slowly eked back toward the hole. Then it eked a little extra, starting to run away from the cup. It caught the lip.

And fell.

Johnson reached out his right hand and squeezed it into a fist. He held it there. Got it. Par saved.

It was his best first round at this tournament in his career. And considering how the wind whipped Lake Michigan's sheen into a steady ripple as the morning wore on here, a 6-under is a shining score for a first day.

"It was nice to end the day with a good, positive vibe," Johnson said afterward.

Johnson deserves some credit for the way he's handled his mistakes, and the aftermath of his mistakes. He cradled his infant son after blowing the U.S. Open, realizing the baby he loves doesn't know or care about a missed putt. He hasn't lashed out at reporters for asking about his gaffes. He's hardly shown any emotion at all. This week could have been a nightmare for him, returning to the scene of the sand crime in 2010. It hasn't been.

"It's frustrating sometimes, but I try not to let it bother me," he said this week. "I love the game, and at the end of the day, it is just a game."

It's a game he plays exceedingly well, and better than ever. He had his best finish at the Masters this year, tying for sixth place, then his near-miss at the U.S. Open, and now he's in the lead here.

He was asked Thursday if he has more confidence after contending so frequently.

"I don't know," he said flatly. "I think I'm just playing a little better this year."

Instead of making the past into a mental car wreck of memories, Johnson just plays on. Another golfer might have some trepidation about a situation where another major could be won or lost on the last day. That doesn't seem to be an issue here. Maybe the pivotal shot that changes the whole tournament was the par putt he's already made, on Thursday.

"I would prefer to be in the lead," he said. "There's less shots you've got to make up."

Let someone else rehash the memories. Johnson is busy forgetting.

And that might be the key to a Sunday to remember.