Between mid-February and the end of March this year, Dustin Johnson played in four events. He won three of them, and finished third in the other—he was, by a good measure, the best player in the sport. He’s still the best player in the sport, if you go by the world rankings. But starting in April, his fortunes took a nosedive.
It started when he slipped on a toy, fell down some stairs, and had to miss the Masters—a story that is so implausible and bizarre that it has to be true.
The injury was supposedly minor, and he came back for a second-place finish at the Wells Fargo shortly after, but his summer results have been progressively worse, culminating with missed cuts at the Memorial and the U.S. Open. The latter trophy was captured by Brooks Koepka, a young American with a very DJ-like game, and it was impossible not to feel as though we were witnessing a missed opportunity.
— Dustin Johnson (@DJohnsonPGA) June 15, 2017
That’s the rub—this year was supposed to be DJ’s moment. He finally broke through at a major championship in 2016, after a career of close calls and miserable luck, he ascended to the top of the sport, and the 2017 campaign should have been a tour de force. Instead, after a hot start that heralded greatness, it’s been a tremendous disappointment.
This may have been naive in a sport as unpredictable as golf, but I fully expected him to win at least two majors this year—he was that good.
A missed tournament and a missed cut later, I’m wondering if we’ve already witnessed the peak of his greatness.
That sentiment is alarmist—maybe. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that this week’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale is a critical moment for him. It’s easy to get lost in analyzing golf courses—Birkdale is flatter than a normal Open course, with narrower fairways and more punishing rough, and is, of course, susceptible to high winds—but the fact is that when DJ is on his game, every course suits him.
In order to change his 2017 narrative from one of unfulfilled promise to something more upbeat, he needs to play his best here. I’m not saying he needs to win, but he does need to show up—something he has failed to do, first literally and then figuratively, at the year’s first two majors.
There are two other Americans that deserve consideration among the favorites, and they come with two very different stories. First, there’s Rickie Fowler—the young wunderkind who’s sneaking up on his 30th birthday, and whose youthful promise has begun to fade into a career defined by near-misses. There’s still plenty of time left, but the expectations are changing all the time.
Five years ago, it seemed like a no-brainer that he’d win multiple majors. Today, his trajectory looks more like Sergio Garcia—a player who is routinely in the mix, but can’t quite finish the job. His latest disappointment came at the U.S. Open, where he was just one shot off the lead after two rounds, and two shots back after three, but failed yet again to make a move on Sunday.
Watching the younger Koepka win must have been a bitter pill—it should have been him, not just that weekend, but years earlier too. Among the crop of young Americans, Fowler has the most to prove this weekend, and arguably the most to lose.
Then there’s Jordan Spieth, the Golden Child who currently finds himself in a small major “drought”—a harsh term for a 23-year-old with two titles to his name already—but who comes in with the kind of energy and style that can only fill his fans with optimism.
His last tournament, the Travelers Championship, ended with a hole-out from the bunker for a dramatic 72nd-hole victory, and was a reminder of the aura of destiny surrounding him. Put simply, the time feels right—where Fowler and Johnson seem to be in a kind of tailspin, the feeling in the air around Spieth is just the opposite, and Birkdale is the perfect course for his third major victory.
Here are three others with a shot to take home the Claret Jug:
Rose can be lethal on courses that call for precision and damage-control. His one major victory to date, at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, came with a winning score of +1. The last two victors at Royal Birkdale, Padraig Harrington and Mark O’Meara, won with scores of +3 and E, respectively. Don’t bet against Rose at a venue that awards careful course management and a diversity of shot-making skills.
Day is 2017’s forgotten man. Can you imagine these odds for him at any point last year, or in 2015? Granted, his form has not been impeccable, but he is capable of turning it on at any point, and may have the most natural ability of any golfer in the field. He is worth taking a chance.
Bello, the Scottish Open champion, has been near the top of international leaderboards for two years straight, and is poised to break through at a venue just like Birkdale. Plus, have you noticed that Spain seems to be winning everything? Rafa Nadal won the French Open, Garbine Muguruza won Wimbledon, Bello won the Scottish—ride the hot hand! A top five finish for Bello is in the cards.
*Prices correct at time of publishing.