Erin, Wis. — Dustin Johnson wrapped up his final-day practice round for the U.S. Open just as the sky began to rumble and the horn sounded to stop play at Erin Hills.
The timing couldn’t have been better for the world’s No. 1 player, as it has been the past two weeks.
As much as he hates missing cuts, the Memorial two weeks ago was a good time for Johnson to have a weekend off. It allowed him to spend two days in Wisconsin getting to know the longest course in U.S. Open history, realizing he would be a late arrival to Erin Hills because of some important family matters.
River Jones Johnson, his second son, was born on Monday.
He finds out Thursday whether his game is in shape for Johnson to become the first back-to-back U.S. Open champion in 28 years, but his mood couldn’t be better. About the only thing to fear, outside of the thick fescue that frames the fairways at Erin Hills, is the house where he is staying.
It has a double-spiral staircase.
“I sit down when I go down the stairs now,” Johnson said with a smile. “I slide down on my butt.”
Stairs were the only thing that could stop him earlier this year. A winner of three straight tournaments — against the strongest fields of the year — Johnson slipped in his socks going downstairs to move his car in the rain on the eve of the Masters and bruised his back so badly he had to withdraw the next day.
He hasn’t won in four starts since then, and his game hasn’t looked as sharp as it once did. He concedes he lost some momentum.
Even so, he is the betting favorite at the 117th U.S. Open on a course that would appear to suit his game perfectly, especially with more rain Wednesday afternoon and a forecast for occasional storms on Friday and Saturday. The greens are soft enough that Johnson is getting yardages to the hole, knowing his shots won’t bounce away too far.
“I hope they play it all the way back on every hole,” he said. “Why not? It’s going to be soft. I hope it’s windy. I hope it’s long, but it doesn’t matter.”
Johnson isn’t one to feel much pressure — he doesn’t show much, anyway — even playing his first major as the No. 1 player in the world.
If anything, the pressure is on the USGA in how they set up the golf course, and the meteorologist to give an accurate forecast of the wind. There are a few holes at Erin Hills where if the tees are all the way back and the wind shifts into the players, some won’t be able to reach the fairway or will face blind shots.
“It’s nerve-wracking, honestly, more than most Open sites,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said.
Johnson isn’t the only long hitter whom Erin Hills favors. Rory McIlroy, who crushed U.S. Open scoring records on a rain-softened course at Congressional in 2011, was delighted to feel the soft turf under his feet.
Jason Day is starting to turn his game around, finally. Along with his power, Day is an expert with the short game, which should come in handy around the greens that feature shaved slopes instead of dense rough.
Johnson, however, is such an intimidating figure even Curtis Strange is a little nervous.
Strange, who now works for Fox Sports as the on-course analyst, won the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill to become the first player since Ben Hogan (1950-51) to win the U.S. Open in consecutive years. “Move over, Ben,” Strange famously said after his second title.
“I’ve got to tell you, it’s tailor-made for Dustin Johnson,” Strange said after his first look at the course.
The Masters (three times) and the PGA Championship in stroke play (twice, by Tiger Woods) have fewer back-to-back winners than the U.S. Open, but it’s the major that has gone the longest without a repeat winner.
The closest call for Strange was in 2005 when defending champion Retief Goosen had a three-shot lead at Pinehurst No. 2. He shot 81 in the final round. Four-time champion Jack Nicklaus never went back-to-back. Neither did Woods.
“You’ve got to be lucky, have it be the right time,” Strange said. “Dustin is more dominant than anybody who has ever done it back-to-back because of his length and the whole bit. But you still have to do it.”
Johnson starts out with the last two U.S. Open champions, Martin Kaymer and Jordan Spieth. It’s a comfortable group, especially with Spieth, a close friend, his partner from the Presidents Cup and his regular pro partner in recent years at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Course: Erin Hills, Erin, Wis. Yardage: 7,741. Par: 72
Purse: $12 million (First prize: $2,160,000)
TV: Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (FS1), 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (FOX); Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (FOX); Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (FOX)
Defending champion: Dustin Johnson