Mastering the Fairway

Columbia natives prove their prowess on the green

By Bob Gillespie

Two golf shots, each memorable … but for vastly different reasons.

One was unique in the history of the PGA Tour; the other decided the outcome of one of golf’s major championships. In the past two years, those shots have come to define, in a sense, the two players who struck them.

Return to 2010, a year that etched both players – Jonathan Byrd and Dustin Johnson – onto the sports public’s collective consciousness. These two products of Columbia between them have won 10 tournament titles (five each) and nearly $30 million while establishing the pair as among the best in the world.

For Jonathan, 35 and a PGA Tour member since 2002, “The Shot” came on the final day of the 2010 Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital Open in Las Vegas. Tied for the lead after regulation play, Jonathan, Martin Laird and Cameron Percy remained deadlocked through three playoff holes. With nightfall approaching, they agreed to play one more hole before quitting and continuing the next morning.

It took just that one shot – Jonathan’s 6-iron at the par-3 hole that went in the cup for a hole-in-one, the first and only “walk-off” ace in Tour history – to end that idea. He never saw the result in the gathering darkness; he had to hear the gallery reaction to know what he’d done.

“There are so many ways to win a tournament, but to win with an ace … it kind of blows your mind,” Jonathan said later. “I almost feel like since that, I’m a different person on the golf course.” Indeed, three months later Jonathan won the 2011 Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, again in a playoff, en route to a career-best $2,938,920 year in which he had five top-10 finishes and played in all four majors.

“It was a very inconsistent year,” he says, with nine missed cuts in 26 events. “But if you were to give me a choice, I would much rather have an inconsistent year with missed cuts and all the high finishes, all the chances I had to win on Sunday, over a very consistent year with no wins and not getting into contention much.”

And that other momentous shot of 2010? It got far more publicity even than Jonathan’s hole-in-one winner, gaining Dustin Johnson the attention of the world – and not in a good way.

 

Dustin Johnson waves to the crowd after winning the BMW Championship golf tournament in Lemont, Ill., Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010. Dustin finished 9-under par. He moved to No. 2 in the FedEx Cup standings and had a shot at the $10 million bonus two weeks later at East Lake. 

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

For the 27-year-old, 2010 was a year of “what ifs.” He led the U.S. Open through three rounds before a horrendous closing 82 opened the way for Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell to take the lead (Dustin tied for eighth). And that was nothing compared to Sunday at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Wis.

Holding a one-shot lead, Dustin’s tee shot on the final hole landed in a “sandy patch” off the fairway, from which he played his second shot. His bogey put him in a playoff – until officials ruled he actually had hit from a bunker, the “sandy patch,” grounding his club before the shot to earn a two-shot penalty. He tied for fifth, those two shots putting him behind winner Martin Kaymer of Germany.

It was Dustin’s reaction, however, that was most memorable. He blamed no one but himself for not knowing the bunkers rule and got over his disappointment quickly, winning the FedEx Cup Playoffs’ BMW Championship less than a month later.

Even another mistake in a major – hitting out of bounds late in the 2011 British Open, ending his chance of overtaking winner Darrin Clarke – did not dim Dustin’s view of his future. No wonder: Afterward, he won again at the weather-shortened Barclays Championship, and posted a second straight $4 million-plus season. He also played for the 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup and 2011 Presidents Cup teams.

“I just need to keep putting myself in the position to win a major, and it’s going to happen,” Dustin says. “I’ve had some good chances. I’ve played well in the final rounds the last two majors where I’ve really been in contention. There’s one shot here or one shot there, and I’ve probably got a victory.”

In early 2012, Jonathan and Dustin again are among professional golf’s top money-winners. Both also are involved in S.C. junior golf and their colleges, time-wise and financially. But while their careers seem similar – both began with rookie-year victories – their lives and outlooks are very different.

Jonathan, a star at Spring Valley High and an All-American at Clemson, is 5-foot-9 but built like an NFL defensive back. A top student in high school and college, he lives quietly with Amanda, his wife, and their two young children in Sea Island, Ga. Once a short hitter due to his lack of size, Jonathan – introduced to golf at age 3 by his late father, Jim – made himself a top player through hard work and a perfectionist’s zeal.

Besides Clemson coach Larry Penley, Jonathan credits his parents (his mother Jo still lives in Columbia) and Jordan, his brother, who is an assistant golf coach at Clemson, for much of his success.

Dustin, who played for Dutch Fork High and was an All-American at Coastal Carolina, is a 6-foot-4 natural athlete who can dunk a basketball. His grandfather, Art Whisnant, was all-conference in basketball at South Carolina and his father, Scott, a golf professional, introduced him to the game. After his parents divorced, though, the young Dustin, by his own admission, had little interest in school and ran with an older, sometimes rowdy crowd.

As a result, he finished his time at Columbia’s Dutch Fork High with grades too poor to get him into South Carolina, his first choice. Fortunately for his future, and golf’s, his late grandmother, a Myrtle Beach resident, convinced Coastal Carolina coach Allen Terrell to go to bat with the school president to admit Dustin. Under Terrell’s firm discipline, Dustin’s life, and his golf game, flourished, and he became an All-American while leading the Chanticleers to their best NCAA results ever.

As professional golfers, both Columbia natives have enjoyed success. But while Dustin, who finished fourth in last year’s PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup rankings, has earned a reputation for near-misses in majors, Jonathan, 27th in the rankings, missed all four cuts in 2011’s premier events. Still, he believes his game is such that now he can contend in golf’s Big Four.

“Last year, I felt like I tried to over-prepare for majors, doing more for those weeks when I didn’t need to,” Jonathan says. “I need to prepare for those weeks like I do any other week. It’s hard because they’re majors, but that’s what I need to do: not make each a bigger deal than it is.”

The week before this year’s Masters, in fact, Amanda was scheduled to deliver their third child. “That should be a good distraction,” he says with a laugh.

During the off-season, Jonathan met with his support team, including mental coach Dr. Morris Pickens, another Clemson grad, to plot this year’s campaign. The goal is to look at the top three things he really needs to work on to get better, in this case his putting, scrambling and par-3 performance. As for majors, he says, “I did feel like going into them if I did play well, I had a chance to win for sure. That’s just a mindset change for most guys.”

Not for Dustin, who also had a busy off-season: surgery to repair cartilage damage in his right knee, and then rest for a sore back in January. Last April, he replaced caddie Bobby Brown with veteran Joe LaCava – formerly Fred Couples’s caddie – then rehired Brown early this year when LaCava left to work for Tiger Woods.

Dustin targeted his pace – and patience – after the 2010 U.S. Open, and says he improved in 2011. “Over the last year I’ve definitely learned that, especially in situations where I’m in the lead or around the lead, I just really need to be patient,” he says. “I think I’ve done a very good job of that.”

He likely will change little else. Despite his rules gaffe at the 2010 PGA, “I’ve never looked at a rules sheet and probably never will,” he says, laughing. His ability to rebound (and profit) from misfortune was demonstrated when he sold on his website T-shirts with the inscription “What bunker?”

Both Jonathan and Dustin seem comfortable in their own skin. Dustin, rated one of the top U.S. players under 30, wasn’t bothered when observers dubbed 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley the best of those last year. “I don’t care. I play golf,” Dustin says. “It doesn’t really matter. I think I’m a pretty good, young American player.”

Jonathan, who friends say was once his own worst enemy when it came to expectations, now has learned what Dustin seems to have been born with. “I’m content,” he says. “I’m very satisfied with 2011 when it all came to the finish. I wish I could’ve played a little better in the majors; I wish I’d played a little better toward the end. But I still played well.

“When my FedEx Cup number was kind of slipping towards the end,” Jonathan says, “I was able to solidify that top 30 and get in the majors for 2012. This is two years in a row that I’ve been in all four majors, so I’m just looking forward to maybe have a taste of that schedule year in and year out.”

Jonathan and Dustin should be in the PGA Tour mix year in and year out for a long time to come – thanks, in part, to a couple of shots they and the rest of the golf world will never forget.

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