The back nine at Bethpage Black on Sunday confirmed something about top golfers and rank amateurs as well: Half-glass full golfers win, and half-empty types come close, when the pressure is on. Brooks Koepka looks as if he is always going to win, even when he wobbles, as he did late on Sunday afternoon. Dustin Johnson never looks as if he is going to win, even when fate – and an opponent -- hand him an opportunity on a silver platter. Call it killer instinct or positive thinking or just plain confidence; Koepka has it, Johnson does not, in spite of his awesome golfing talent.
Six strokes...and then there was one
Within just a few holes, Koepka’s seemingly invincible six-stroke lead over his only competitor, Johnson, nearly evaporated, leaving them separated by a mere stroke with a few holes to go for Johnson (and one more than that for Koepka). Make no mistake about it, Johnson played great golf, perhaps the best round of the day given the afternoon winds that seemed especially to bedevil Koepka off the tees. But almost from the moment Johnson learned he was a miraculous single-stroke away, the momentum shifted for him; he missed a makeable putt for par on 16, and one could not avoid the feeling that we had seen this movie before.
Choke holds in the majors
Indeed we had, most notably in 2010, 2011 and 2015. In 2010, Johnson entered the final round of the U.S. Open at Whistling Straights with a three-stroke lead. During that round, he grounded his club in a bunker that was not clearly marked, incurred a two-shot penalty and shot 82. 82! – going into the final round of a major championship with a sizable lead. At the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, Johnson was in contention on the back nine, just two shots behind Darren Clarke, as the American stood on the par-5 14th hole. After a nice drive, Johnson pulled out a 2 iron in the fairway and pushed it so far right it sailed out of bounds to end his chances for the British title. (He double-bogeyed the holed, something big hitters should never come close to doing on a par 5.)
But the most notorious collapse was that Sunday in 2015 at Chambers Bay in Oregon when a 12-foot putt to win the U.S. Open turned into a three-putt loss. Folks, this isn’t you or me on the 18th hole for the club championship at East Jabip Golf and Country Club. This is one of the best golfers in the world –- actually #1 in the world until Koepka jumped past him on Sunday afternoon -- three putting from 12 feet. “Choke” is neither an unkind nor unfair label for that and Johnson’s other mishaps under pressure. Golf is undeniably a mental game; Johnson has immense golfing ability, and a well-earned US Open victory at Oakmont, but something almost always seems to be going on north of that neck of his at the moments of greatest pressure, and it is not pretty.
“Baseball,” as former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti once wrote, “will break your heart.” Golf will break your spirit if you let it. Brooks Koepka has demonstrated he does not let it. Dustin Johnson is another story.