Nobody's had a major-tournament year like Dustin Johnson had in 2010, ever.
Except maybe 1996, for Greg Norman. Or 1987, for Greg Norman. Or 1986, for Greg Norman.
Johnson was the 54-hole leader at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June, but coughed up a three-stroke lead in the first three holes of the final round and finished with an 82.
At the PGA Championship in August, the 26-year-old grounded his club in a rough patch of dirt that Whistling Straits calls a bunker, and it cost him two strokes and kept him out of a playoff for the championship.
He owned them both – his own implosion at the U.S. Open, his own mistake at the PGA. He looked clear-eyed into the cameras and blamed no one but himself. The mistakes didn’t break him.
Painful as it was, it was not as hard to watch as Norman’s meltdown at the 1996 Masters. He opened with a first-round 63, led the field by six strokes to begin the final day, and seemed on the verge of his first Masters title.
Instead, his lead leaked steadily, aided by his own mistakes, and by the end his 78 left him five strokes behind winner Nick Faldo.
In 1987, at the Masters, Norman was in a playoff with Larry Mize when Mize knocked in an improbable 45-yard chip for birdie. Norman missed his birdie putt, and Mize claimed the green jacket.
In 1986, Norman led all four majors after 54 holes, but won only one.
Norman’s ill luck in the majors, in the heart of his career, began to look like a pattern.
By contrast, Johnson’s foibles on two major Sundays last year only underscored the fact that nobody played better or contended more consistently who didn’t actually win a major.
After that 1996 Masters, Norman was near the end of his golf life, though he showed flashes of brilliance as recently as the 2008 British Open, when he led after 54 holes and finished third.
But his real life was just beginning.
His personal wealth is measured in the hundreds of millions, from wide-ranging endeavors in and out of golf. He’s craggy-handsome, with blond hair at 55 that still looks best blowing in the wind, and he looks so good in those wide-brimmed hats called “Aussies” that they seem made just for him.
In fact, the hats originated in the Australian military, but nobody wears them better than Norman. In the Greg Norman Collection, his aerified version is known simply as the Greg Norman straw hat (www.shark.com if you’re looking for one; they come in white, ecru and black, with the iconic shark logo on the front).
And that’s what they call him, The Shark, one of the best nicknames in sports. Call him “choker” at your peril. Though his historic misfortune in U.S. majors is a part of his legacy, Norman won 88 times worldwide, including the British Open twice. He was No. 1 in the world for 331 weeks.
Norman represented the bridge between the Palmer-Nicklaus years and the Tiger Woods years, with only Norman’s slightly younger contemporary Fred Couples even close to his equal in charisma and gale-force gallery power.
When the new golf season opens this weekend with the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawaii, the ever-cool but low-key Johnson is unlikely to stir wild passions among fans. At least, not like the Norman of old, or Couples, or Woods, or even Phil Mickelson, a huge gallery favorite now but a man who had to overcome his own repeated failures in the majors.
But no one will be surprised if the tall and athletic Johnson is the breakout tour star of 2011.
Johnson’s “bad” year in 2010 included two PGA Tour victories, including his second straight win at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He finished fourth in tour money at nearly $4.5 million.
No one will blink if his 2011 includes wins in one or more majors.
Linking Johnson and Norman in history might be straining a parallel, but their names were joined in Johnson’s final victory of the year early last month, when he teamed with Ian Poulter to win Norman’s (non-tour) Shark Shootout in Naples, Fla.
A bad couple of days, even a bad season, seem unlikely to define Dustin Johnson. Though it marked him deeply, one horrid day at the Masters does not define Greg Norman.
WOODS. TIGER WOODS.
In 2011, at the very least, Tiger Woods will be less the traveling novelty act of last year, when all that was Tiger was threatened – the swing, the mystique, the inexorable march to his record 19th major.
He’ll never be just another player – he’s Tiger Woods – but this year, unless he’s worked a quick fix on his game, he really could be just another player. The landscape has changed – the Johnsons, the Ryan Moores, the Martin Kaymers of the world are in awe of no one.
On the other hand, he’s Tiger Woods. Would you bet against him?
Olympia freelance writer Bart Potter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org