Dustin Johnson is lurking.
Funny how the No. 1 player in the world can be just behind the curtains of a major championship when the show goes on in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black on Thursday.
But that’s the way it is when Tiger Woods re-emerges as the fans’ No. 1, coming off an emotional and electric Masters victory.
Johnson’s taciturn demeanor belies a nuclear drive to be the best, though coming into this tournament as No. 1 isn’t nearly as important to him as just playing like No. 1.
“It doesn't matter either way, but it's always nice to be No. 1,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “For me coming here to the PGA, especially coming back to Bethpage, played a few events here, and I really like this course, especially if you're hitting it well.”
The contenders in this PGA will have to drive it well and Johnson always has been one of the game’s longest drivers, though accuracy will be a far greater asset this week than length.
“For me, it's all about driving,” Johnson said. “The fairways are generous in some spots. Some holes are narrow. But you've got to hit the fairways here. The rough is pretty penal. It's not super deep, but it's just really thick, and you've just got to drive it straight.”
The 34-year-old Johnson has built a Hall of Fame resume with 20 victories, and has won at least once in 12 straight seasons. Only one of those wins was a major, the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
He’s likely remembered for the disasters that befell him in majors rather than the one he won, and that one was full of controversy on the final day.
At the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach he had a three-shot lead to start the final round, made triple bogey on the second hole and posted a meltdown 82. In the PGA Championship that August, he grounded his club in a fairway bunker, incurring a two-shot penalty and missing out on a playoff. At the 2011 British Open he was gaining on leader Darren Clarke when he knocked a shot out of bounds. At the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay his approach to the par-5 18th finished 12 feet behind the hole, leaving an eagle putt that would give him the title. He three-putted, gift-wrapping the championship for Jordan Spieth.
His controversy at Oakmont ultimately changed a rule of golf. After video review he was deemed to have caused his ball to move by a dimple on the fifth green. The match referee absolved him at the time, but seven holes later higher powers assessed him the penalty. He kept his undeniable cool and won anyway. After a major outcry, the rule was changed to no penalty for accidental movement.
On Wednesday he evinced no great disappointment at his fate in majors, only his confidence that Bethpage is a good place for him.
“A little frustrated sometimes just because I've had quite a few chances and I've felt like a few of them I really didn't do anything — I played well,” Johnson said. “But that's just how it is. It's hard to win majors. If it was easy, a lot of guys would have a lot more than they do.”
He has played in three events at the Black: the 2009 U.S. Open (tie 40th), the 2012 Barclays (tie 3rd) and the 2016 Barclays (T 18th).
He has as good a chance as anyone this week at a course he enjoys in front of fans who seem to embrace him.
“They've always been really good to me,” he said. “You definitely don't want to be on their bad side, though. That's for sure. But yeah, I've always loved coming up here and playing, and fortunately, I don't know why they like me, but they do, and so I'm going to try to do everything to keep it that way.”