Dustin Johnson had just made Chambers Bay look like a pitch-and-putt course, coming in with a 5-under par 65 for a share of the U.S. Open lead after the morning rounds.
And in his post-round press conference, he still was asked about his previous failures in major tournaments.
Such is the weight of expectations upon the gifted.
Johnson has long been one of the most impressive big boppers, a guy who can knock the dimples off the ball, and render some courses obsolete with his power.
The belief is, then, that he should be stacking up the wins. But at this point, it’s a small stack, and despite eight top-10 finishes in majors, he’s never closed the deal on the biggest stages.
He was asked if this U.S. Open was the chance for him to “get the monkey off your back.”
Athletes throughout the ages have loved that question. I’m still waiting for one to answer: “Yeah, you know, I really am eager to rid myself of the crippling self-doubt caused by my indefensible series of competitive failures.”
“No,” Johnson answered. “I’m here to play golf and put myself in a position on Sunday to have a chance to win.”
But there’s been more than just a mythical monkey clinging to Johnson. There’s been questions about his dedication, his off-course lifestyle, and his leave of absence last season to deal with unspecified personal problems.
Have those things contributed to keep him from climbing even higher than his current No. 7 world ranking?
It’s fair to suspect that the lack of mental focus needed to fashion and hold a lead appears to have been at the root of his most notable collapses.
He held on for a solid tie for second in the British Open in 2011 at Royal St. George’s. But he gacked his way to an 82 final round in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach after holding a hree-stroke lead at 54 holes.
And at the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits, he led by one on the final hole, but drew a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a hazard and fell into a tie for fifth place.
Those tournaments “were a long time ago,” he said. Absolutely. Fair enough.
And he has three more days to prove they are irrelevant now. He likes his chances.
“I really like the golf course … thought it set up well for me,” he said.
Johnson wasn’t just about overpowering Chambers Bay, playing at just shy of 7,500 yards. He controlled his distance, stuck his second shots, and putted well enough to go bogey-free until his final hole, No. 9.
Johnson had been frustrated heading into the week. He withdrew from the tournament in Memphis, Tennessee, last week, saying he’d been feeling ill. That allowed him to get to Chambers for some weekend practice rounds.
“I’ve been playing pretty well; I had some good finishes,” he said. “But I just wasn’t striking it like I wanted to.” By the time he practiced here Saturday, he had rediscovered his swing tempo.
His driving distance average was 336.5 yards, particularly impressive given his finding of 11 of the 14 fairways on par 4s and 5s. And it is even better than his PGA Tour-best average of 317 yards per drive.
“The confidence is definitely there,” he said. “I definitely feel good about where I’m at going into tomorrow.”
If Johnson can hold this together, and claim his first major championship, it could well be the springboard to the kind of career that his talent seems to warrant.
If not, the questions will continue.
“I think I’m a better player,” he said of his play now relative to earlier tournaments. “Obviously, (I’m) a lot more mature.”
Which may be the key to it all.