BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Dustin Johnson did not watch himself lose the PGA Championship on Sunday. He had plenty of chances. There were screens everywhere. He loped off the course and lingered briefly in the scoring tent, where a TV showed Brooks Koepka teeing off on No. 17. Johnson did not look up. He spent that time signing balls for the marshal and standard-bearer who had followed him.
He made his way to the Golf Channel on NBC tent, where the TV in front of him showed Koepka on the 17th fairway. Johnson stared behind him, at the graphic of his own scorecard.
Next he went in for a Sky Sports interview. Again the TV in front of him offered a chance to watch Koepka. Johnson glanced down, caught a glimpse of Koepka on the 18th fairway, groaned and looked back up.
Finally, as he headed toward a Sirius XM interview, a PGA official stopped him: “Do you want to watch?”
“No,” Johnson said.
He had seen enough—and really, it wasn’t that bad. Koepka’s fourth major in eight tries gave Johnson golf’s biggest backhanded compliment: the Second Slam, a runner-up finish in each major. Informed of this, he laughed.
“Yay,” he said, his voice thick with sarcasm. “I’m so excited.”
He was joking. This loss was not like the others. He carded at 69 the best score among the top 25 players on the leaderboard. He just ran out of course. In the past, he has often collapsed. At this year’s Masters, he simply finished one shot behind a resurgent Tiger Woods, but at the 2011 British Open, two strokes out of the lead with five holes to play, Johnson picked the wrong club and yanked his approach out of bounds. Double bogey. Then, at the ’15 U.S. Open, he stood on the 18th green needing a 12-foot eagle putt for the championship. He missed. He needed a birdie to force a playoff. He missed.
There have been more disappointments. In addition to the 2019 Masters, he has on four occasions played Sunday at a major with at least a share of the lead, then let it slip away: the ’10 U.S. Open, when he shot an 82 on Sunday to finish tied for eighth; the PGA two months later, when he grounded his club in an unmarked bunker and tied for fifth; the ’15 U.S. Open, when he bogeyed three of four holes on the back nine; and last year’s U.S. Open, when he took a four-stroke lead into the weekend, at which point he essentially got screwed for playing well. The Shinnecock Hills course, which had been forgiving that morning, became rough and nearly unplayable by the time the leaders teed off in the afternoon. So Johnson entered Sunday tied with Koepka for first. They worked out together in the morning, then played the final round together in the afternoon. Koepka shot a 68. Johnson shot a 70.
That day, Johnson refused to speak to the media. He glowered and stalked to the players’ parking lot, then drove away 18 minutes after sinking a meaningless birdie putt on No. 18.
Fifty-eight miles west and 337 days later, Johnson seemed in good spirits. When he climbed into a golf cart after the round, he checked his phone and scrolled through dozens of texts. Good playing, his friends said. Keep your head up.
“I'm happy with the way I played,” he said in a press conference he agreed to give. “Obviously I knew starting seven back that it was going to be a big feat to catch Brooks. You know, I definitely gave him a run, though, so I was happy with that.”
He almost did better than that. Koepka entered Sunday with a seven-shot lead. Before the round, Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott, had identified Johnson as the man most likely to take it away. So when Koepka bogeyed four straight holes, Nos. 11 through 14, to narrow his lead to a stroke, he thought about Johnson, two holes ahead of him. The fans did, too. “D-J,” they mocked Koepka. “D-J.”
Johnson stood on the 16th fairway, 192 yards between him and the pin. Off to the right, he felt a wind more powerful than any in golf since Herbert Warren. Golfers try to quantify everything from launch angle to air density, but in those conditions, they are really just guessing. He briefly considered exchanging the 5-iron in his hands for a 4.
“I didn't think the 5 was going to even come close, based on the shots that I've hit, earlier in the round, into the wind,” Johnson said. “The wind was just really eating the ball up when you're hitting it into it. I tried to hit a little low draw. Hit the shot I wanted to right at the flag. I don't know how it flew 200 yards into the wind like that.”
He made bogey. Koepka heard the crowd groan. It never got closer again.
Johnson is one of the most talented players in history. He has won 20 tournaments and leads the PGA Tour in scoring average, with 69.195. He hit a 489-yard drive at the WGC–Dell Match Play championship last March, the longest since ShotLink began tracking such things in 2003. But he only has one major championship—the 2016 U.S. Open—and he is 34 years old. How many more chances will he have?
Johnson believes he will have plenty. Who’s the best player in the world, Dustin?
“I'm pretty sure I'm still ranked No. 1,” he said. “So I'd pick myself.”
He should check again: Koepka just moved to No. 1.