It would have made the perfect pairing: Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, close friends and workout buddies, ranked first and third in the world, in the final group of the fourth round of a major.
Didn’t happen. And the way Koepka is playing, it might not matter if Johnson — or Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus in their prime — was in the same twosome at the PGA Championship.
Johnson bogeyed the 18th hole Saturday to fall into a four-way tie for second place, seven shots behind defending champ Koepka. Johnson recognized how much lower his 1-under 69 could have been at Bethpage Black. He also knew he’d blown a chance to close the gap on Koepka, who shot even par after rounds of 63 and 65.
“I’m going to need some help from him, and then I’m going to have to play very, very well,” Johnson said, bemoaning five bogeys that pretty much offset his six birdies. “I’ve played a lot of golf with him. I see a lot of myself, we both hit it long and straight. He’s a really good player.”
As is Johnson, of course. But when it comes to majors, Koepka is well ahead of his pal. Should he hold on this weekend, Koepka will own back-to-back wins in the U.S. Open and the PGA. Johnson’s lone major victory came in the 2016 U.S. Open, though he’s contended in a bunch of majors.
Johnson, owner of 20 PGA Tour victories and two on the European Tour, with wins in Saudi Arabia and Mexico this season, would be replaced by Koepka at No. 1 if Koekpa wins.
Johnson has the kind of power game that fits long, difficult courses. Unlike Koepka, who also plays the kind of golf ideal for the likes of Bethpage Black, Johnson has made far too many mistakes to stay close to the leader.
“I felt like I played well today. Just made too many bogeys,” he said, adding that the wind played havoc with many shots for everyone. “It wasn’t one thing or the other. Wind got me a couple times. You know, I hit some drives that I thought should have ended up better than they did. Seemed like every time I got just a little bit out of position, I made bogey. Missed quite a few short birdie putts, missed a couple short par putts.
“But it was, overall, I felt like I swung the golf club very well. I drove it well. I putted well. I missed a few short ones. Felt really I rolled it well and where I wanted to, just a couple short ones that I missed.”
Actually, Johnson ranks first in driving distance average this week at 307 yards, but only 41st in fairways hit, 25 of 42. He is ranked 37th in putting.
Those numbers won’t win him any titles.
So how does he change up things to try to make up seven strokes on the hottest golfer in the majors over the last two years?
“There’s really nothing you can do on this golf course to change your approach,” Johnson said. “Drive it in the fairway. If I drive it in the fairway, I feel like there’s no hole I can’t attack because if I’m driving it in the fairway, and coming out of the fairway you can control the golf ball. The greens are fairly receptive. Every time I was in the fairway, I hit a shot that I gave myself a really good look at birdie.
“I got a lot of confidence in the irons and I’m driving it well, too. I just need to limit those misses.”