Dustin Johnson: Breakout star or best available?

Dustin Johnson won the AT&T with a two-over 74 on Sunday.
Mike Ehrmann/SI

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - We may look back at Sunday's ungainly conclusion of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, when U.S. Open-like calamity arrived four months early, as the beginning of the Dustin Johnson era.

We've seen Tiger Woods win ugly and then proclaim, "It's good to get the W."

Johnson won ugly (74 with a double and three bogeys) and said, "Got up-and-down to get the victory. Can't beat that."

At only 25, Johnson has won three times. He seems to have a huge upside. For the sake of the PGA Tour, let's hope he keeps showing it. Because it would be very easy to view Sunday's ugly action at beautiful Pebble as an indictment of the Tour without Tiger Woods — proof that in the U.S. the game is, for now, rudderless.

Granted, we in the media usually want things to be neater and cleaner than they are in real life. Very rarely can you sum up a sport in one concise cover line, such as this Sports Illustrated summation in 1999: "David Duval is on fire."

But it's cause for pause when Johnson shoots 74 and wins without even having to go to sudden death, just as it was when Ben Crane yanked a two-foot putt on the 71st hole of the Farmers Insurance Open and won in regulation two weeks earlier.

These are not the types of mistakes one can make with Woods on the scene, but then Sunday at Pebble was no ordinary day, as a Biblical plague of banana peels seemed to descend on the par-5 14th hole. That's where four guys vying for the title went a collective 13 over par — three 9s (Alex Prugh, Bryce Molder and Paul Goydos, in that order) and a comparatively spiffy but still costly bogey 6 (David Duval).

Three 9s is a pretty decent poker hand or a leisurely workweek, but it's not what you expect from the best golfers in the world.

"That's the amateur's shot," a fan said as Molder's lay-up second shot nestled into the rough right of the 14th fairway, because, of course, pros rarely lay up into trouble.

"No, it's Molders," the other fan said.

You could forgive the confusion. The amateurs and pros were playing the same game in more ways than one during Sunday's five-hour-and-40-minute final round.

Pebble Beach has the tiniest greens on Tour, but we nonetheless witnessed some egregious mistakes. From the middle of the 11th fairway, after watching J.B. Holmes make bogey from behind the green, Goydos, too, found the back bunker and bogeyed.

Tour pros are usually great at identifying where you absolutely cannot hit the ball, and then avoiding that spot. On Sunday they seemed to be aiming for it, whether it was the back bunker on 11 or left of the green on 14, or over the cliff on nine.

Those sorts of mental mishaps once dogged Phil Mickelson, but after he won the Tour Championship and HSBC Champions to close out 2009, he came into this season riding a huge wave of confidence, especially in his newly revamped putting stroke.

He looked so good, in fact, that as the curtain went up on the PGA Tour this year, you could almost hear a voice intone, "Ladies and gentlemen, in tonight's performance, the role usually played by Tiger Woods will be played by Phil Mickelson. Thank you."

Alas, Mickelson did not seriously contend at the Farmers, the Northern Trust or the AT&T, and revealed that his putting woes had returned after carding a final-round 71 at Pebble (T8). Like Woods, he will not play the WGC-Accenture Match Play this week.

"They weren't what I had hoped for," Mickelson said of his first three weeks, in essence speaking for everyone with an interest in the Tour.

And so we are left with an assortment of 2010 winners who are somewhat random (Ryan Palmer, Bill Haas, Ben Crane) and somewhat not.

Geoff Ogilvy's repeat victory at Kapalua gave us hope, but he disappeared to play overseas and take care of family obligations as he and his wife, Juli, await the birth of their third child. Steve Stricker, the top seed at the WGC-Accenture, claimed the No. 2 ranking with his victory at Riviera, but his climb back from the abyss is an old story even if it still makes him cry. How many times can we vote a man Comeback Player of the Year?

And so we're left with Dustin Johnson, our best hope for the breakout star the game needs in Tiger's absence. Johnson became the first player to go back-to-back at the AT&T since Mark O'Meara 20 years ago, and he is probably one bad round (his third-round 74 at Riviera) from winning in back-to-back weeks. He's the first player since Woods to win in each of his first three seasons on Tour, and without Woods or Mickelson in the picture this week, the Tour would very much benefit from yet another Johnson triumph.

Could Johnson be a star? He could grow into it. The night before the AT&T began, he was brought onto a stage with fellow young phenom Rickie Fowler at a crowded party emceed by CBS golf mainstays Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo.

Although Fowler took to the spotlight with apparent ease, Johnson initially looked like he might be sick. But he rallied, giving Fowler some grief for his orange golf attire. (Johnson is from South Carolina, so orange means Florida.)

"I don't like orange," Johnson quipped.

It wasn't much, but it was something, a bit of almost-trash talk for the partygoers to latch onto and laugh at. As much as Johnson's titanic, 288-yard drive into the wind on 18 on Sunday, and his ensuing sand-save for birdie, it showed promise.

We like promise, and right now there's a lot of it on Tour. Josh Teater (T5 at AT&T) is the fourth player to earn low-rookie honors in the season's first five weeks.

On the global stage, Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, Germany's Martin Kaymer and Johnson are jockeying for the title of Most Promising.

Johnson and Kaymer have already won this year, and if there's one thing we like more than promise, it's young winners, especially young American winners who remind us of Woods, Mickelson or Duval. It's all about the narrative.

Supposing Johnson goes 6-0 in Tucson this week, here's a suggested headline: "Dustin Johnson is on fire."

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