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Dustin Johnson off to a strong start in U.S. Open

Dustin Johnson, looking for a major breakthrough, shoots a 65 at Chambers Bay

There will be golf fans who watched Dustin Johnson's tremendous start Thursday in the U.S. Open and will be skeptical about his ability to also make a tremendous finish Sunday.

Some will be skeptical about Johnson, no matter what.

Which is sad, but maybe earned.

Johnson shot a 32-33-65 on Chambers Bay's weird, wacky and wonderful golf course and shared the first-round lead with Henrik Stenson. It was, and is, a performance worthy of high praise.

Chambers Bay is a course that doesn't just challenge players. It eats them. There are enough mounds, funky fescue and impossible angles to prompt an additional tour employment hire this week in western Washington: psychiatrist.

Will we easily forget poor Camilo Villegas, taking a seven on the 12th hole Thursday, with various drops into a trap and scuffs out of it? Or Tiger Woods' flying club as he slashed out of an off-the-fairway jungle?

In the face of all this, Johnson was superb.

He fulfilled the promise that this was a course for the big hitters by driving it an average of 336.5 yards and by playing the course bogey-free until his final hole, the par-three ninth. At one point, he was six under par and led by three.

"I had a good feel for the golf course," Johnson said, "because I'm swinging it well."

That being said, with Johnson, there is always eyebrow-raising.

He is a tall, lanky, greatly athletic 30-year-old — he can still dunk a basketball. He has won nine times on the tour and has won at least once in each of the last eight PGA Tour seasons, best of his peers.

Johnson also has imploded twice at times that, had he not, would have elevated him to another level on the tour and in people's minds. Those were in 2010, at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

At Pebble Beach, where he had already won twice, he led the Open after 54 holes and shot an 82 on Sunday. That closing disaster round included a triple bogey on No. 2 and a double bogey on No. 3. His shot-and-club selection in that round, not to mention his thought process, were puzzling.

A few months later, all he needed to win the PGA title was a decent second shot and a two-putt on No. 18. He made the decent second shot, but he had grounded his club in the sand trap where he was standing, a spot he didn't think was a sand trap because he had failed to read the well-posted course rules. Instead of a major title, or even a spot in a playoff that would still give him a chance, he got a two-stroke penalty and an early shower.

Much has been written about that, including a piece by ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski, who characterized what Johnson did, or failed to do by not reading the rules, as "Roberto De Vicenzo-dumb, a sin of laziness."

De Vicenzo was the Argentine who signed a wrong scorecard that cost him a chance to win the 1968 Masters.

Since then, Johnson has continued to win tournaments, place high in others, win millions of dollars and even challenge in majors. When asked Thursday about any remaining demons from 2010, about whether he looked at majors now as a chance to get those monkeys off his back, he said, "No. I'm here to play golf and to put myself in a position Sunday to have a chance to win. Whistling Straits was a long time ago."

He used the same "long time ago" phrase later when asked about his 2010 Pebble Beach travails.

He also muddied the perception waters by dropping off the tour for six months after the British Open last summer. Johnson said he needed to address "personal challenges."

If that sort of vague phrase doesn't light up the rumor mill, nothing will. One website, Golf.com, said he had marijuana and cocaine problems. He denied that and so did the tour. It said his leave was totally voluntary. Johnson, in various interviews, did not deny that he liked to party and have an extra cocktail or two.

His fiancee is Paulina Gretzky, who is the daughter of some old hockey player you might have heard of, and he and Paulina have a 5-month old son, Tatum, to whose presence Johnson attributes a new inner peace and perspective.

There are moments of common sense and deeper thought that may bode well for the major tournament breakthrough that would do so much for Johnson and the perception of him.

"You can't really overpower this course," he said after his round Thursday. "It helps to hit it long, but only if you also hit it straight."

Golf loves the thinking strategists, like Tiger Woods was when he was Tiger Woods. It also loves the talented but goofy risk-takers, which Phil Mickelson was and probably still is, buried somewhere deep within.

It doesn't embrace mindless bombers. Which Dustin Johnson, as blessed a golfer as he is, will continue to be in the minds of many fans, until he starts showing otherwise.

A good time for that would be the next three rounds of the U.S. Open.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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