If ever a golf course seemed destined to showcase the explosive talents of Dustin Johnson, Baltusrol is it. The home of this year’s PGA Championship is long and uncomplicated, almost as if the folks at the New Jersey golf club had put out a welcome mat for the man whose swing is pure dynamite.
Yet as Thursday’s first round came to a close, Johnson easily ranked as the day’s biggest disappointment. His seven-over round of 77 dumped him as deeply into the rear guard as he’s ever been this early at a major—tied for 143rd, with only five players carding a worse score.
It was a remarkable failure for a golfer who so thoroughly meets Baltusrol’s two basic requirements: Hit it long, and hit it straight.
Equally baffling is that Johnson’s game unraveled just as it was all coming together so perfectly.
Johnson arrived at Baltusrol working on a string of six consecutive finishes in the top 10 on the PGA Tour, including two victories and a tie for second at last week’s Canadian Open. He was playing free and loose, which made perfect sense after he finally broke through for his first major, at the U.S. Open last month.
It was no surprise to see him ranked No. 1 for driving distance entering the tournament, but he also was in that vaunted spot in three other prestigious categories: FedEx Cup points, scoring average and money won on the tour this year.
Johnson also had ascended to a No. 2 world ranking with a chance to overtake Jason Day for the top spot this week. But now that 77 has him 12 shots off the lead and in stark danger of missing a cut for the first time in 2016.
Statistically speaking, it was double bogeys at Nos. 3 and 11 that punished the reigning U.S. Open champion hardest. But what was most telling about Johnson’s blowup at Baltusrol was how he finished on the 17th and 18th, two par 5s that might as well have been laid out with Johnson in mind.
Those two holes—the only par 5s on the course—played a big part in DJ being such a big favorite going into this 100th PGA Championship.
The 17th is 649 yards, one of the longest in majors history. The 18th is 554 yards and begs for attempts at eagles—it yielded five Thursday. Together, they loom as opportunities for the big hitters to finish birdie-eagle and leapfrog over anyone with middling strength. This is golf’s equivalent of a Home Run Derby, without the fences.
Minutes before Johnson took on those holes, one of golf’s other atomic hitters showed how 17 and 18 can wipe away a day of misery and send a man into the locker room happy.
Bubba Watson finished birdie-birdie and was all smiles after salvaging a one-over round of 71 that keeps him in the hunt.
There’s no doubt that Watson’s confidence will be bubbling when he gets back to those two holes Friday, particularly after Bubba launched a 380-yard tee shot on 18 that would have made NASA envious.
As for Johnson, he settled for par on 17 and then finished with a devastating bogey on 18 after hooking his tee shot into the water. It was as if Atlas had forgotten how to flex.
The 18th was kinder to Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler, who had birdies there. But Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott also endured bogeys on what so far has been the tournament's best scoring hole.
Johnson understandably skipped the post-round press conference, but he talked to Golf Digest’s Sam Weinman as he loaded his clubs into his car in the parking lot.
"I felt like I'm swinging well. It was just a bad day," Johnson told Weinman. "It's the first time I've played bad in a long time, so I'm not going to worry about it. Tomorrow's another day. I've just got to come out and shoot a good number."
Johnson is absolutely right that it has been a long time between brutal rounds. He hadn’t shot a round so bad since another 77 back in May, in the third round of The Players Championship. And the only time he’s been this bad at a PGA Championship was when he shot a seven-over 79 at the 2012 tournament.
Just like everyone else, Johnson didn’t see this coming.
"It was just a rough day," he told Weinman. "Anything that could go wrong did. I had a good warm-up session, too. So it wasn't like...it just wasn't a good day. But it's not off by too much. I feel like I made some good swings, and they just ended up in bad spots."
The factors that made Johnson a favorite going into the first round will remain in place when he goes off on the back nine Friday morning. That means he’ll also get to those opportunistic 17th and 18th holes sooner, with a chance to energize his round. The early start also might help him beat some bad weather, as there is an 80 percent chance of precipitation Friday.
But if he doesn’t make a better showing there in his second round, we will likely see Johnson walking away early from a course he was supposed to own. Surely, nothing close to what the golf world expected of the red-hot superstar.
Tom Weir covered several majors as a columnist for USA Today.