Naked admission: I'd completely forgotten about Dustin Johnson.
In this crowded landscape of golf parity, where the major-championship baton has been handed to 14 consecutive different winners, where one week Jason Dufner is the new Tiger, and the next week Matt Kuchar is the new Tiger, and the next week Tiger is the New Tiger, Johnson popped up over the weekend to say:
"Yo! Remember me? I've been gone the last three months. I'm the big, athletic guy with the most powerful golf swing on Earth, pillow-soft hands around the green and a history – albeit checkered – at majors. Yeah, that guy. The bunker-at-Whistling-Straits guy. I'm back. I just shot 66 on Sunday to win the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. And I'll see you at Olympic for the U.S. Open. Boom."
Well, this complicates matters.
Just when we'd all sorted out our Open favorites – Tiger because he's back; Luke because he's due; Phil because he's Phil – Johnson has mucked up the works.
Dustin Johnson has always had the most mouth-watering game on tour. He's routinely among the tour leaders in driving distance, birdies, eagles and money. He was in position to win the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but shot 82 on Sunday. He was in position to win the 2010 PGA Championship, but grounded his club in a bunker he didn't know was a bunker, because he forgot to read the local rules. He was in position to win the 2011 British Open, only two back of Darren Clarke at Sandwich on the 14th fairway, but pumped his 2-iron out of bounds.
Some might look at that history and conclude Johnson has a million-dollar game with a 10-cent head. That conclusion has some merit to it. Another way to look at it is, Johnson, who turns 28 this month, has been knock-knock-knockin' on major championship doors, still believing one will open soon.
His 66 at Memphis zoomed him past an intriguing leaderboard that included Rory McIlroy, who seems intent on bringing the double-bogey back into fashion; Chad Campbell, a once-prominent player who hasn't won in five years; and Davis Love III, the Ryder Cup captain who is feeling his oats a little after qualifying for the U.S. Open last week.
With two birdies in his last three holes to seal the win, Johnson reminded us how pure the game looks when he's pounding fairways and lasering irons. We had forgotten because the guy disappeared for three months after Doral, announcing via Twitter that he injured his back lifting a jet ski.
Most of the civilized golf world responded in kind: Say what?
Who lifts a jet ski, much less a world-class golfer who needs to protect his body? The rumor mill speculated whether Johnson was legitimately injured or not. Whispers abounded that Johnson was suspended for failing a drug test. This has never been confirmed and it's been denied – by Johnson, who said he "laughed" at the idea, and by his disgusted agent, David Winkle. Winkle said PGA Tour gossip circles are the worst he's ever seen, even worse than his daughters' cheerleading and sorority circles.
Johnson's game and body showed an alarming lack of rust or effect from the injury. He finished T-19th at the Memorial last week, then dropped a 66 on Sunday in Memphis. This didn't look like a guy nursing a tender back.
Instead, he looked like every bit the threat for another major championship windmill-tilt. It's time to start reeling off all those stats that tantalize: He's the first player since Tiger to post a win in each of his first five seasons since college, and he has the most wins (six) of any American player in his 20s.
In short, the New World Order of golf, in which it's anybody's ballgame, needs to scoot over and make room for Johnson. He's one of those guys you forgot RSVP'd to the party, but when he shows up at your door, you try not to raise eyebrows, simply take his coat and point him to the punch bowl.
Dustin Johnson is here to join the fiesta.
Scorecard of the week
68-64-68-69 – 19-under 269, Lee Westwood, winner, European PGA Tour Nordea Masters, Bro Hoff Slot GC, Stockholm, Sweden.
The silliest thing a golf writer can do before a major championship is "announce" his or her pick to win. There are, after all, 150-plus players, many of them world-class, major-winner possibilities. Golf is fluky, weird and prone to ignoring momentum. Forecasting the future is a skill yet to be mastered and yet, all your friends, colleagues and readers want to know: Who do you think will win the U.S. Open at Olympic? Well, heck, I don't know! But forced to participate in the fun, I made a pick, and it's Lee Westwood. I told anyone who asked that Westwood is due to come through after so many close calls (top three finishes in six of his last 10 majors), that his precise iron game suits Olympic, and that putting – ostensibly Westwood's weakness – won't be as important as tee-to-green at Olympic.
And then Westwood goes and does this:
He wins by five at the Nordea Masters, boasts of his new golf clubs and putter, solidifies his status as the world's No. 3-ranked player – and brings on the Don't-Win-The-Week-Before-A-Major whammy.
Since the start of majors in 1934, only six times has a player won the week prior to winning a major, and four times it was at the Masters. No player has ever won the week before winning a U.S. Open.
What in the name of black cats is Westwood doing? Not only is he going to battle the Stockholm-to-San Francisco jet lag all week, he's essentially assured my pick will be wrong. Seventy-eight years of history says as much.
And don't ask me to explain how Dustin Johnson winning at Memphis enhances his chances in the face of this history. I'm more concerned with Westwood's fate, because of the pick.
I'll stick with my pick, just to be consistent. But if Westwood flops, don't blame me. Blame Westwood for winning in Sweden – the new Stockholm syndrome.
Mulligan of the week
There he was, young Rory McIlroy, his golf world a mess, arriving in Memphis the week before he's to defend his U.S. Open title. In one year's time, McIlroy went from the Next Chosen One, to a guy who couldn't make a cut. Approaching the one year anniversary of his record U.S. Open triumph at Congressional, McIlroy suddenly carried negative energy as the 15th club in his bag.
He'd missed three consecutive cuts. He became No. 1 in the world, then lost it to Luke Donald. He hadn't contended in a major since Congressional. And even Jack Nicklaus, to his face in a CNN interview, doubted his decision to play in Memphis, instead of focusing on Olympic.
First things first: The good news for McIlroy was he made the cut in Memphis.
It wasn't all good after that. His 36-hole lead turned into a two-shot deficit after 54 holes because he made six bogeys on Saturday en route to a 2-over 72.
But on Sunday, McIlroy seemed primed to win for the second time on the PGA Tour this year. He had a two-shot lead on the 11th hole, but made bogey on Nos. 12 and 14 to lose it. Ick.
A clutch birdie on No. 17 saw McIlroy arrive at the 72nd tee tied for the lead. Or, at least he thought he was. Turns out Dustin Johnson made birdie on No. 17 behind him for a one-shot lead, but when McIlroy broke out his 3-wood off the tee at TPC Southwind, he didn't know that. All he knew was that he faced a pressure tee shot with a significant water hazard left. In his attempt to reclaim some lost mojo, this scenario presented ample opportunity.
Until he yanked his tee shot hard left.
And then, clank. (That was the sound of McIlroy disgustedly dropping his club on the tee box.)
It got worse. McIlroy's third was lovely, just short of the green, and his fourth was a game chip he tried to hole for par, but ran 5 feet past.
And then missed the bogey putt.
So, McIlroy, plagued by double-bogeys last week at the Memorial (two, plus a quad) – an effort so bad he entered Memphis on a whim – heads to Olympic with a double bogey as his last score on a competitive golf hole.
The opposite of momentum in sports is a slump, but you'd hate to throw the "S" word at McIlroy.
Now, I can hear some clamoring that McIlroy is best off not winning in Memphis, because of the historically difficult back-to-back before a major. But I'm not asking that McIlroy had won at Memphis. I'm merely asking that he had made a standard par-4 on the 72nd hole, lost to Dustin Johnson by a stroke and been proud of his finish.
In the interest of rooting for a charismatic kid with a Louvre-worthy golf swing, let's go back out to the 72nd hole, let McIlroy crack his neck a few times, maybe bring in a Swedish masseuse to work out some kinks, remind him that he usually roasts that 3-wood better than anyone on the planet and … give that shaggy-haired Ulsterman a mulligan!
Broadcast moment of the week
"He should just play this hole as quickly as possible and start thinking about the United States Open." – Peter Oosterhuis, CBS, as McIlroy pondered where to drop his golf ball after hitting into the water hazard on 18 in Memphis.
Good point. The flip side of all the hand-wringing McIlroy can do is look at it this way:
I made a cut. I had the lead late on a Sunday. I shot 69 in the final round. I didn't want to win, anyway, because of that whammy thing. So, on to Olympic Club, and order me up two of those awesome "Hot Dog Burgers" that the O Club is famous for. Gas up the jet!
Life is all about perspective, after all.
Where do we go from here?
I know the Masters has the tinkling piano music, the TV ratings, Jim Nantz in reverential whisper, green jackets, azaleas and the lush scenery every year, but how do you beat our national open?
Besides, I thought we fought a Revolutionary War for the freedom to host our own national championship. Not only that, but also we'll allow anybody who plays his or her way in to tee it up. When Neil Diamond penned "America" and got to the part about "On the boats/and on the planes/They're coming to America!" I'm pretty sure he meant the U.S. Open golf tournament.
So, the world golf scene heads to San Francisco. We're all aware of Olympic's history, in which a lesser name fells a legend. Jack Fleck did it to Ben Hogan in 1955; Billy Casper did it to Arnold Palmer in 1966; Scott Simpson did it to Tom Watson in 1987 and Lee Janzen did it to Payne Stewart in 1998.
By that logic, you should take Bo Van Pelt to nick Phil Mickelson on the 72nd hole.
You can go that way if you'd like. I'm thinking this is one of the best plots we can ever conjure. We have Tiger 2.0, winning again, but not nearly as intimidating. We have Mickelson searching for the elusive, sentimental U.S. Open victory. We have McIlroy, nearly 20 years younger than Lefty, carrying the trophy for its defense. We have Rickie Fowler leading the Justin Bieber generation of hopefuls. We have Matt Kuchar returning to the site of his breakthrough amateur star turn. We have Dustin Johnson trying to make history. We have Lee Westwood carrying the Colin Montgomerie "Nearly Man" mantle, only without Monty's look of permanent intestinal gas.
We'll have San Francisco Giants hats in the gallery, Golden Gate Bridge beauty shots heading to commercial and the indisputably breathtaking sight of Monterey Pines, a Spanish-styled, red-tiled clubhouse roof, and America's Pacific urban jewel as host.
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