SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — Imagine what must go through a player’s mind when he returns to a place where a major championship was in his grasp until a blunder in the bunker ruined everything. The shot was shown countless times. Questions were inevitable and endless.
That was Thomas Bjorn at Royal St. George’s.
And he can appreciate better than most what Dustin Johnson is facing this week at Whistling Straits.
Bjorn took three swings out of a pot bunker on the 16th hole to lose a two-shot lead, and he wound up one shot behind Ben Curtis in the 2003 British Open. He made it back to Royal St. George’s eight years later as an alternate, made birdie on the 16th hole in the first round and was tied for the lead.
As he approached that week, Bjorn was thinking more about what got him into the lead than what knocked him out of it.
“I turned it around,” he said. “I know I can play this golf course really well and it’s an opportunity to put something to bed. That was my mindset going in there. And then from there, I got off to a good start and it disappears, because then you’re in the moment.
“I think Dustin will go back and think like that,” Bjorn said. “I don’t think it will bother him too much, particularly because he’s playing so well.”
Johnson’s mistake was more severe because it happened on the last hole of the 2010 PGA Championship.
He had a one-shot lead and was in sand right of the 18th fairway, unaware it was a bunker. Maybe it was the plastic cup or the beer can near his ball that confused him. Whatever the case, he set his 4-iron in the sand and was penalized two shots for grounding his club in a bunker, and it knocked him out of a playoff.
For all his talent, he still hasn’t won a major. And already this year, he three-putted the final hole of the U.S. Open to go from a chance to win to a crushing loss. And now he’s back at Whistling Straits facing a horrible memory.
Except that Johnson doesn’t see it that way. He remembers playing better than anyone for 71 holes.
“Whether I play good this time, who knows?” Johnson said. “But I think about how good I was playing that week. I’m comfortable there. I feel like if I drive well, I’m going to play well there.”
Unlike Bjorn, he won’t have to face the same shot.
The PGA Championship has erected a grandstand over a portion of the bunker where Johnson infamously grounded his club. Graeme McDowell told Johnson about this development last week after a practice round.
“I guess I won’t be hitting out of that bunker,” Johnson said with a laugh.
For all the losing that goes on in golf — even Tiger Woods during his peak years lost two-thirds of the time — most players do a reasonable job of thinking positive.
No one in the last 15 years has blown a major worse than Adam Scott at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He had a four-shot lead with four holes to play in 2012 and made four straight bogeys to lose the British Open by one. His take from that devastating moment? For the first time, he truly believed he was good enough to win a major. Scott looked back at 68 holes without beating himself up over the last four.
He won the Masters the following year.
“The difference in a tournament can be a sharp knife’s point,” Scott said. “I can’t speak for Dustin, but when it’s just one shot, I can’t imagine that affects your confidence.”
At a time when it seemed like Woods could not be beat, Bjorn did just that. They played all four rounds together at Dubai in 2001, and on the final hole, Woods hit into the water and made double bogey to lose. He came back to win the Dubai Desert Classic twice.
“I’ve never looked at the things I did wrong that cost me a tournament when I’ve come back to the event,” Woods said. “It’s more of a feeling in which, hey, I know how to play this golf course, and I know what works on this golf course to get me into a position to win the event.”
Jim Furyk had a couple of close calls at Firestone, none worse than 2012 when he had a one-shot lead and his ball in the 18th fairway. One bad swing put him in a terrible position right of the green, he made double bogey and lost by one. It didn’t cross his mind when he played the 18th hole the following year, perhaps because Firestone is a course he plays every year and because Furyk is used to getting over failure.
He has to. It’s golf.
If Johnson is haunted by anything this week, Furyk thinks it might be his three-putt at Chambers Bay in June, not a penalty he received five years ago at Whistling Straits.
“I was reading an article … about him having scars and if that’s a good or a bad thing,” Furyk said. “There isn’t anyone that doesn’t have scars and doesn’t have a memory when they step up on a tee where the last two times they hit it left in the water and you’ve got to rip one down the middle. It’s happened to all of us.
“It’s how you handle those situations,” he added, “that end up making or breaking you.”