SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - No one ever refers to Dustin Johnson as The Great One. That nickname already is taken, for starters. Besides, it is rare that anybody gets effusive about Johnson's greatest asset: letting despair run off his shoulders.
You do have to give him credit for that, though. He just keeps coming back for more, no matter how often he leaves a big tournament having to lift his own spirits when he should have been hoisting a trophy. He keeps rolling with the punches, most of them self-inflicted.
As if he or anyone else needed a reminder, he will play the first two rounds of the PGA Championship Thursday and Friday alongside Jason Day and Rickie Fowler, probably his two biggest rivals for the Best Golfer Never to Have Won a Major award. Apparently someone on the pairings committee has a sense of humor. Obviously, Johnson does, too.
He knew what he was in for, heading back to Whistling Straits, site of his most embarrassingly frustrating moment. Five years ago at the PGA, Johnson finished what seemed to be his first major championship victory, or at least a place in a playoff, when he was stunningly told he had been assessed a two-stroke penalty for having illegally grounded his club on a bunker off the 18th fairway.
It was an honest mistake. He didn't realize that the trafficked sand was actually considered a bunker, mostly because he hadn't read or forgotten about the signs telling him about the local rule. This year, the rule is the same and explanatory signs are everywhere, reportedly even near the locker room urinals.
"I haven't looked at them but I don't need to," he said Wednesday. "After what happened, I'm pretty sure I know what's going on."
Of course he was asked how often he has thought about that gaffe. "About as many times as I've been asked the question," he said. "I don't really think about it unless someone asks me the question. But this year I don't have to worry about it. There's a grandstand there. Thank you, PGA."
That is true. Bleachers have been set up on the trap that was his nemesis. Just his luck that they weren't there last time.
As it is, his whole demeanor implies a "What are you going to do?" shrug. Part of that is his laid-back personality. Part of it is his time spent in the company of Wayne Gretzky, father of his fiancée Paulina and grandfather to the son that Johnson calls "probably the best thing that ever happened to us."
Gretzky will forever be known as The Great One for having been the most exceptional hockey player of his time (perhaps all time) and for having raised the Stanley Cup. "I get to watch him and kind of learn from him, like the way he handles things and the way he portrays himself," Johnson said. "If you ask anyone, he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet and he always makes time for people."
Johnson needed someone to boost him after he threw away a lead in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, after he three-putted away the U.S. Open this year, after his "personal issues" which published reports linked to cocaine.
Many people say it is only a matter of time before Johnson does win a major. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps he just lacks that little something that can close out a title. For now, he deserves a little credit for taking the heartbreak so well. "It's frustrating sometimes, but I try not to let it bother me," he said. "I love the game, and at the end of the day, it is just a game."
Good naturedly, he is waiting for the day when the game gives him a lift, when he can catch a sliver of greatness and see his own reflection in a trophy.