SANDWICH, England -- The biggest surprise isn't that Dustin Johnson is in the final Sunday pairing for the third time in six majors. His game is that big.
No, the biggest surprise is that Johnson is in contention at all, considering he woke up Thursday morning with a sore throat, glands in his neck swollen to the size of Pro-V 1s, and through 13 holes was nine strokes off the lead and seemingly headed for an early flight home to get some bed rest.
"Through 13 holes in the first round I definitely didn't see myself in the final group on Sunday," said Johnson of his 4-over start in the British Open at Royal St. George's.
Then the antibiotics a local doctor prescribed started kicking in, along with the natural gifts that have made the 27-year-old Johnson one of the most promising young Americans. Birdies on 14 and 15, followed by an ace on the 16th hole and another birdie on 17, sent him from 4 over to 1 under faster than the Chunnel train.
As his health has steadily improved through Friday and Saturday, so has his place on the leaderboard, where he now sits at 4 under and one shot behind leader Darren Clarke. He's second only to Clarke in birdies or better, with all 13 of his coming in the past 41 holes.
|British Open 2011|
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"I knew I needed to get something going," said Johnson two days after what the Brits call his "purple patch" that turned his British Open around. "Going from 4 over back to even in three holes definitely helped, and then I even birdied 17. You know, I had a really good stretch of holes right there, and that kind of kept me in the tournament. I kind of just fed off of that the rest of the time."
Saturday's second consecutive 68 has Johnson once again lurking on the precipice of a major title. He blew up with a 3-shot lead entering the final round at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Then he lost out on a spot in the playoff at the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits with a bunker gaffe on the 72nd hole that cost him two strokes.
Now he's hot on Clarke's tail in the British Open. He has been in this spot more often than the veteran Northern Irishman.
"Obviously I've been in this situation a few times, so I think the more and more you can put yourself in a situation, the more comfortable you get," said Johnson. "I'm going to be pretty comfortable out there [Sunday] because I know what to expect. I know how to approach it, and I know what I do in those situations."
He certainly knows what not to do -- shoot 82 or break any rules. Safe to say he won't be mistaking any of the deep sod-walled pits that pepper the heaving landscape of St. George's for anything other than what they are.
"I try to just steer clear of the bunkers is the main thing, off the tee," he said. "Around the greens you can get up and down out of a bunker, but off the tee if you hit it in the bunker, you're chipping out every time."
What Johnson is capable of doing more than Clarke or many of the other chasers is reduce the Sandwich links into bite-sized morsels with the proper wind. He leads the field in driving distance (334 yards) and his prodigious length allows him to carry much of the messy parts and take aim at greens more than 400 yards away with the breeze at his back.
Friend and frequent practice round partner Phil Mickelson thinks St. George's is a perfect fit for Johnson.
|Dustin Johnson's power isn't the liability some expected on the links. (Getty Images)|
For some reason Johnson's success this week comes as a surprise to the local media that doesn't consider his brand of attacking play fit for links golf. Any doubters must not have been paying attention last year when Johnson was inside the top 10 and the lowest American on the leaderboard before making a hash of the last two holes to finish tied for 14th at St. Andrews.
Turns out that Johnson has long been a fan of links golf and the challenges it presents. His first experience came in a college tournament on the faux links at St. Andrews Bay up the road from the famed Old Course. Johnson won.
He also went 1-1-1 for the victorious U.S. team at the 2007 Walker Cup matches at Royal County Down.
"Ever since the first time I came over here and played ... links golf, I've really enjoyed it," he said. "You've got to hit all different kinds of shots. You've got to cut it, you've got to draw it, you've got to hit it low, you've got to hit it high. And I enjoy that. You've just got to control your golf ball, which I think I do a very good job of. I'm not surprised that I'm close to the top of the lead."
Neither are his American mates. Twice before in the current unprecedented streak of five majors won by European Tour players, Johnson has had the chance to win the prize for the Americans. The third time might just be the charm.
"Given the way he's played the first three days I don't think you can go against that," said Mickelson, who sits only five shots behind Clarke himself among six Americans in the top 10. "I think absolutely [he can win]. Plus the fact that he's been there before and he knows what hasn't worked for him, and then he also knows what has worked for him in some tournaments. I think he'll be more ready than ever to play."
While repeatedly getting into contention in three different majors, Johnson isn't fazed by his past failures. Nor does he fret about whether he's leading or trailing. If the antibiotic treatment keeps progressing as it has, he'll be 100 percent for the first time all week and fit to bring his best.
"It doesn't really matter whether you're chasing or you've got the lead," he said. "Obviously I would rather have the lead because it's one less shot I've got to make up. But going out [Sunday], I'm still going to have to play aggressive when I can and then play smart when I have to."
Scott Michaux is the sports columnist and golf writer for the Augusta Chronicle and augusta.com.