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Published: Thursday, 9/30/2010

Johnson brings moxie to U.S. Ryder Cup team

The Ryder Cup is well underway across the pond as we chat Friday morning. Perhaps Dustin Johnson has already given a hint as to whether he's the wild card or the joker for Team USA.

There are 11 rookies in the matches, six on the European side, and all will attempt to find a way to deal with the pressure of one of sport's greatest international competitions.

It doesn't figure the partisan fans at Celtic Manor in Wales or the Euros' favored team or its caustic captain, Colin Montgomerie, will come up with anything that Johnson can't handle. Not after the summer he has just experienced.

Johnson was poised to win two major championships in 2010. Instead, he absorbed two gut shots that might have caused a lesser man to bleed out.

To the contrary, Johnson kept his game at a high level and, two weeks ago, won the BMW Championship near Chicago, part of the PGA Tour's season-ending playoff series.

Nobody appreciated that performance more than Corey Pavin, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain.

“The things that have happened to him this year, the maturity that he's shown … to go to Chicago and win that tournament with everything that's happened, you can just see him growing as a player,” Pavin said. “He's definitely on a good roll right now.”

Such a good roll, such a confident roll, in fact, that Pavin sent Johnson and partner Phil Mickelson off first Friday morning in the fourball competition that opened Team USA's defense of the Ryder Cup. Their opponents were the formidable Euro team of Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, who won the PGA Championship that Johnson was a par away from claiming.

But first things first; and that would be the U.S. Open in June at fabled Pebble Beach on the California coast. Johnson owned a three-shot lead entering the final round before melting down to a closing 82.

It was an implosion that some compared to Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters or Jean Van de Velde at the '99 British Open. Not quite true. Norman made it to mid-round before pulling a dead man walking and the Frenchman gave it away at the end; Johnson was history after a triple bogey-double bogey-bogey salvo at Nos. 2-3-4.

He was back at the PGA, though, and poised to win again at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. This time, needing a par on the 72nd hole, he sprayed his final drive far right and failed to recognize that his ball had landed in a bunker barely larger, and worse kept, than a child's sandbox. When he grounded his club there was a two-shot penalty and more heartbreak waiting by the time he reached the green.

Johnson sought no sympathy. While many, including yours truly, decried a poorly conceived local rule that treated all bunkers, even those not properly maintained, as equal hazards, Johnson took his medicine and the blame.

Not long after, he took the BMW title. So he is nothing if not resilient. He is also very, very long and, contrary to his final drive at Whistling Straits, normally accurate. To say that he and Bubba Watson are the big hitters on a U.S. team that includes Mickelson and Tiger Woods says it all.

“He's an incredible talent and he's got a lot of moxie to him,” Mickelson said of Johnson. “He's not afraid of failure.”

As 2010 has proved, it's a short step from failure to success, a step Johnson could help his American teammates take this weekend.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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