SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Is it any surprise that the guy who won by six last week is leading the U.S. Open just five days later? Golf doesn’t often stick to the script, but when Dustin Johnson is on, things tend to feel preordained.
Johnson played a second straight round of fabulously controlled golf Friday — four birdies and just one bogey — despite Shinnecock Hills continuing its practice of punishing the (other) best players in the world. At four under for the tournament, Johnson is four clear of the field.
“Dustin was in complete control of what he’s doing,” said noteworthy playing partner Tiger Woods. “He’s hitting the ball so flush and so solid. I know it’s windy, it’s blustery, it was raining early, but he’s hitting right through it.”
Complete control. About 150 other players are wishing they had that. But the truth is they’re playing Shinnecock Hills during a U.S. Open. The course is long, slick and difficult, in addition to what Woods said. Of course it didn’t help that British Open weather arrived a month early.
After a brutally windy Thursday, it seemed unfair when a surprising rainstorm popped up and hung over the course for three hours Friday morning. Thousands of spectators arrived with smiles at this Long Island beauty. Before long their shorts, sandals and sundresses were accompanied by ponchos. As for the golf, it was the kind of weather that changes things just enough when the margins between birdie, par and triple bogey are razor thin.
“The forecast didn’t really say [rain],” Stenson said. “I think there were a few guys that left the brolly in the locker room and had to have someone come run out with it.”
Woods was one of those who left the umbrella elsewhere. Kyle Stanley’s caddie had rain pants ushered to him on the 7th tee. “The rain came out of nowhere,” offered Justin Thomas. “It was a very, very long, difficult golf course that put even more of a premium on hitting fairways. … You kind of had to play for skids on chips. If it was into the wind, the ball really wasn’t bouncing, and if it was downwind, it was really skidding a lot.”
Thomas entertained the idea of pushing Johnson Friday — Woods and his 72 certainly did not — but back-to-back bogeys on his second nine kept him from a score in the 60s. Johnson now has two of those — rounds in the 60s — as his 67 was one of just four rounds from the morning wave to beat par. Tommy Fleetwood and his six birdies was another — a smooth, quiet 66 that stood up as the round of the day. Those adjectives can serve as a sweeping story of the 2018 championship thus far. There hasn’t been much…excitement.
Perhaps that’s how this was meant to be. An Open recalibration of sorts from the birdies on birdies at Erin Hills a year ago. Finally, around noon, after the skies had cleared and it began to feel like the Hamptons in the summer, Johnson provided the first real electric moment, easing a 45-foot double-breaker into the cup on the 7th hole.
Birdie from over 45 feet for DJ!
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) June 15, 2018
For a typically emotionless player — he called the putt, simply, “a good one” — Johnson’s fist-pump and stare at the crowd, followed by his laughter and smile felt significant. It’s fun when you’re in “complete control” and you know it, and also when you know that everyone else knows it. Reminder: he won by six last week, holing out an approach from 171 yards for a true walk off.
For most players not named Johnson or Fleetwood, Shinnecock continued its punishing practices Friday, especially in the morning. When Webb Simpson located his tee shot in the fescue right of the 8th fairway, he blurted out one of this Open’s greatest truths to his caddie, Paul Tesori: “One yard at a time, bud.” Simpson was exasperated. So was Tesori. Simpson’s ball had come to rest in the thick, wet, grabby rough, just 12 inches from the cleaner, easier, matted down gallery area.
Tesori nodded but quickly asked, “Is it definitely your ball?” Fair question. Mickey DeMorat played a wrong ball from the fescue Thursday. It was a blunt lesson in his first event as a professional that cost him two strokes and kept him from shooting even par. (Even with the penalty, DeMorat is still in the mix at four over, T14.)
Simpson hacked his way out of the fescue, ventured to the green and made a 17-foot putt for par, another par that helped keep him inside the eight-over cut line. Rory McIlroy (10 over), Jon Rahm (15 over) and Sergio Garcia (14 over) were not so fortunate. Neither was Jason Day (12 over) or Woods (10 over). Martin Kaymer, who quite memorably displayed DJ-esque control at Pinehurst in 2014, made a 44-footer on the last, raising his arms triumphantly to shoot 83-75, 18 over.
Around 1:30 p.m., much of the afternoon wave was still yet to tee off. DJ was leaving the course to go home, sit on the couch and watch the struggle continue on TV. The afternoon players didn’t have to deal with the rain or even the worst wind of the day. By the end of the round, there was barely any wind at all, but the top of the leaderboard hadn’t changed. JOHNSON D, in all black letters, was up there still.
A handful of them, at different times, were candidates for Johnson’s Saturday tee time partner. First it was Jusin Rose, who reached two under on his back nine, only to close with consecutive bogeys. Next was Ian Poulter, who even reached three under, teasing the thought of a tasty Englishman-American duel. All he did was blade-chunk-chunk his way to a triple bogey on his penultimate hole. Defending champ Brooks Koepka matched Fleetwood’s 66 with six birdies of his own. But still, five shots separate Koepka and his friend at the top. Charley Hoffman was about to join Johnson on Saturday, but he bogeyed the final hole to drop back to even. He and Scott Piercy are tied for second, while Fleetwood, Koepka, Rose, Stenson and Poulter are all one over.
Stenson was asked a question everyone is asking right now. Is Johnson catchable? The true answer is of course. We’re only at halftime of this thing. All sorts of outcomes await. But when you start thinking about the context of the best player in the world reaching his peak, the future seems more clear than it ought to be.
“He’s gonna be hard to catch,” Stenson eventually said, walking off and surrendering the podium to DJ himself. “I’ll let him answer those questions.”