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Dustin Johnson has major talent, but everyone's waiting for a major win

Dustin Johnson has major talent, but everyone's waiting for a major win
Dustin Johnson marks his ball on the 15th green during the second round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Feb. 12. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

If a golfer's greatness is measured by his shots under pressure, Dustin Johnson is an enigma wrapped in a riddle.

In last year's Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club, Johnson hit a fantastic approach shot to 10 feet on the 72nd hole, but missed the putt that would have won the tournament.

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On the second playoff hole, Johnson's flop shot was all-world in making birdie on the iconic 10th hole, and on the next hole his tee shot at the par-three 14th was striped to 12 feet. But he again missed the putt and journeyman James Hahn seized the victory.

Four months later, more puzzle pieces were poured in an unkempt pile.

A tremendous five-iron approach on the 18th on Sunday in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay gave Johnson a 14-foot eagle roll to claim his first major. He blew that putt past the cup by four feet, and then, seemingly dazed and rushed, he never touched the hole on the comebacker and gave Jordan Spieth a second straight major triumph.

Johnson's brilliance, so quickly besmirched by mediocrity, has been his pro signature. Is he to be judged by the victories he has earned in eight consecutive seasons — a feat matched by no one on the PGA Tour in that stretch — or for the confounding near-misses, most notably in major championships?

"The thing that we do in the media, and I'm guilty of it now too, is that the ultimate compliment actually becomes an insult," said Dennis Paulson, a former tour player who serves as an on-course commentator for PGA Tour radio.

"You expect more from somebody as talented as he is. And it's not an insult, but it can sound like that."

Paulson is among many who rave about Johnson's skill set, which has earned him nine victories in his first eight years on tour and 11 top-10 finishes in 31 major championship starts. He is among the tour's longest hitters, blasting drives at an average of 313 yards this season.

"I think he's on a Hall of Fame trajectory," former player and NBC/Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee said Tuesday. "I think it's very easy with the early success of Tiger Woods, or Rory [McIlroy] even, to expect much, much more from players than is reasonable."

Chamblee points to the careers of Phil Mickelson, Nick Price and Tom Weiskopf as comparisons for the 31-year-old Johnson.

In Mickelson's first eight seasons, he didn't win a major (it would take him 12 seasons to do so). Mickelson won his first major at age 33 — and now he has five. And though Mickelson's 16 victories in that early span top Johnson's nine, Mickelson had four top-fives in majors, as Johnson does, and some disheartening losses.

Weiskopf, a 16-time tour winner, seized his only major, the British Open, at 30, and Price was 35 when he captured the first of his three majors, which sent him on a tear of 12 wins over the next three seasons.

Johnson is coming off a 2014-15 season in which he notched 11 top-10 finishes and a victory in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, overcoming Patrick Reed's five-shot lead Sunday.

He currently is ranked eighth in the world, with a career high of No. 3 after the 2015 U.S. Open, but Johnson's name is absent from the talk of a "Big Three," or even "Fab Four," which includes Rickie Fowler, who is four years younger and owns six fewer tour wins.

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Other than the booming drives, there seems to be less of a fascinating public hook for Johnson, who is soft-spoken, provides little insight and displays only small glimpses of emotion on the course.

His relationship with former model Paulina Gretzky, with whom he has a 1-year-old son, sometimes gets more attention than his golf game, and Johnson made headlines in 2014 when he left the tour in for six months to deal with "personal issues" that were never specified.

The family of NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky has fully embraced Johnson; Paulina is traveling to all of the tour stops; and Johnson said of being a father to Tatum, "That's probably the most positive thing I've had. Having a son makes everything so much more easy. You don't worry about golf as much. You don't worry about anything as much."

Last week at Pebble Beach, Wayne Gretzky played alongside Johnson in the pro-am and said after their round at Spyglass Hill, "He's so purely talented and a good young man. It's really a treat for me to play with him because he's on another level."

Asked if he has tried to coach Johnson in any way, Gretzky said, "I really don't. He's a pro golfer; I wasn't. He prepares the same way I did. He eats right; his preparation habits before the round are good. There's not a whole lot of advice I could give him."

One of the most memorable scenes at Chambers Bay was the Gretzky family standing on a knoll above the 18th hole, all smiles when Johnson lined up his eagle putt to win the U.S. Open. They groaned as thousands did when Johnson three-putted and saw another major opportunity slip away.

The other notable near-misses: blowing up with an 82 while leading going into the final round in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach; and a couple months later being penalized for grounding his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and missing a playoff.

"One of the worst decisions in major championship golf was penalizing him there," NBC and Golf Channel commentator David Feherty said Tuesday.

"He's got so much talent and so much time left. I think that his attitude is wonderful as well. … I have no doubts about Dustin Johnson that he's going to win and win big tournaments, majors."

After the bitter Chambers Bay defeat, Johnson said, "It gives me confidence to know I have what it takes to win. … Coming down the back nine, I was hitting the shots that I wanted to hit. Unfortunately, the ball wasn't bouncing in the hole. But I know I've got what it takes."

Johnson is lauded for letting the disappointments roll off his back, and in that he resembles another great player, Paulson said.

"Tiger [Woods] was the dumbest golfer in the world," Paulson said. "He forgot all of the bad stuff. He'd keep hitting the same shots expecting to be great. Dustin doesn't let things bother him much. That's brilliant."

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