SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Shinnecock Hills was such a stingy old course that it was hard to make a big move in the U.S. Open. There were no great leaps on the leader board, no tremendous roars, just a grim silence as the field tried to grind out pars and avoid catastrophes under the chill, unmoving cloud cover. Which only made leader Dustin Johnson seem all the more easygoing, with that sweet swing and nonchalant way of seeming to hit “right through” it all, as Tiger Woods put it.
Johnson’s loose, ambling stride and that I-can’t-be-bothered-to-shave demeanor have been a distinct advantage through two rounds at Shinnecock, the primly unforgiving Victorian par-70 that has handcuffed most of the field and made them look as if they’re afraid to use the wrong fork. “I like being in the lead for sure. It’s less shots you’ve got to make up,” Johnson said offhandedly, after his second-round 67 stood him alone with a four-stroke lead. It was the statement of a man who knew there would be problems ahead on these long-grassed sandhills but who is playing with palpable confidence.
Woods, of all people, knew what he was looking at. The former No. 1 in the world played with Johnson through two weathery rounds and recognized the same state he once enjoyed at his peak, when he was winning 14 major championships with an untouchable composure. “Dustin was in complete control of what he’s doing,” Woods said. “He’s hitting the ball so flush and so solid . . . Every putt looked like it was going to go in.”
No matter what the club or the shot, Johnson seemed to call up just the right trajectory and ball flight in a round that included just one bogey, on his opening hole. At the tiltawhirl par-3 seventh hole, with its famed “redan” green, Johnson stroked a winding 45-footer, and as it approached the hole he pointed at it, directing it to turn toward the hole. It did what it was told and dropped in. “Yeah, that was a good one,” Johnson said.
In other words, Johnson’s golf ball is obeying him. And it’s doing so to a degree that everyone else here is noticing and envying. “You don’t win major championships by kind of slapping all around the place and missing putts,” Woods said. “You have to be on. . . . You just can’t fake it at a major championship.”
As for Woods himself, he wasn’t exactly faking it, but his reconstituted game after multiple back surgeries was still too inconsistent to make the cut: His rounds of 78-72 included three double-bogeys and a triple.
“I looked at it as kind of progressively putting myself back into position,” Woods said. “I couldn’t chase down the leaders right away. . . . Unfortunately, I went the other way.”
Woods was hardly the only major name to miss the weekend — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm (to name a few) also were outside the cut line.
Anyone seeking to chase Johnson has to think very incrementally. There are precious few clawback holes or places to shift the momentum on tight, angled Shinnecock: just two holes on the entire course have played under par, the par 5s.
And there is a steep penalty for trying too hard, as Ian Poulter discovered. Poulter closed to within a stroke of Johnson at 3 under with a round of exquisite consistency and a sudden spate of three birdies in four holes. But it was as if the course punished him for too much aggression. At the eighth hole — his second to last of the day — he found himself in the deep, loose sand of a bunker. He tried to hit a “perfect” shot and instead he bladed it. The ball completely flew the green and landed in deep fescue. Next, he jabbed his recovery into even longer grass. And then left that one on the upslope of an embankment. He fell back to 1 over for the tournament, leaving Charley Hoffman and Scott Piercy as the closest pursuers at even-par.
“When you’re out of position on this golf course and, you know, you’re trying not to make another mistake and another mistake and you kind of are, you know, it just looks really stupid,” Poulter said afterward. “So, yes, I felt stupid knifing the first one. I felt even more stupid semi-chunking the next one, and I didn’t do much better on the next one either.”
But Poulter is by no means alone in his embarrassment. Every hole on the golf course has been double-bogeyed at least once. Twelve holes have seen triple bogeys. “There’s a disaster on every single hole,” Poulter added. “ . . . I mean the stats don’t lie. U.S. Open golf — and especially this golf course — is extremely tricky. So I’m in the hunt. I’m happy.”
Defending champion Brooks Koepka was asked what would be the hardest thing about trying to chase down Johnson. His answer: “This golf course.”
Koepka made the closest thing to a move of anyone all day with a 66, which put him in a thick group of pursuers five strokes back that included a couple of major champions creeping up, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson. His strategy was to just “try and sneak in a few birdies.”
That means that Johnson’s pursuers will need help from him. They have to hope that, at some point, he hits a bad shot and posts a big number that lets them back in it. “All it takes is one shot in the fescue and you could be in there for a while,” Koepka said.
But Johnson has not been playing like someone who will give back strokes. Perhaps more important than his ability to cadge out rare birdies is the fact that he has been able to string together so many pars. “I like where par is a good score on every hole no matter what club you got in your hand, what hole it is,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to get it back in play and then give myself just a look at par. I feel like, if I can get a look at par and not make any doubles, you know, I’m going to make a couple birdies. But limit the mistakes, especially limit the big numbers.”
If Johnson hangs on for two more rounds to win his second U.S. Open in four years, he will deserve reassessment, and maybe his performance already demands it. He has not just been a long-ball hitter or pure athletic talent here but rather a player with superb management skills and unbothered temperament. Shinnecock is a highly technical course, with changes of direction, side slopes and hard angles, and the conditions over the past two days have made it even more so. Every shot requires careful calculation and control. To lead after 36 holes, Johnson had to think his way around it and shape all kinds of shots in shifting wind conditions.
U.S. Golf Association Executive Director Mike Davis said before the tournament began that he hoped Shinnecock would force players to get every club in the bag dirty. Johnson has done that: He has shown a long game and short game, walloped big drives, holed out from bunkers and run in long putts.
Said Justin Thomas, one of his playing partners for the first two rounds: “He pretty much has it all covered.”