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Dustin Johnson story more than a year in the making

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The first day of summer meant Sunday was the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Sunday night was undoubtedly the longest night in the golfing life of Dustin Johnson.

On Sunday, Johnson was in the unlikely position of lining up a 12-foot putt to win the United States Open. Down by three strokes on the 17th hole, Johnson followed leader Jordan Spieth’s double bogey on the same hole with a birdie to forge a tie.

What followed will be discussed for years to come. Johnson’s 12-footer was for eagle, which would have topped Spieth’s birdie on 18 and given Johnson the title.

Though this story played out on live television, if this were a movie script, the words “One Year Earlier” would have appeared on the screen. Viewers are then taken for the ride on how Johnson reached that point on 18.

The story would cover his six-month absence from the PGA Tour in 2014, although neither Johnson nor the PGA would say why. Johnson denied failing any drug test, but there was clearly a personal issue.  We would also learn of his other near-misses in major tournaments.

During his absence, the Jupiter, Fla., resident and his significant other, Paulina Gretzky, rented a home in Southern California near her parents, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and Janet Jones Gretzky. He returned to the tour in early 2015.

Just before Johnson resumed playing, he and Paulina became the parents of Tatum Gretzky Johnson. On March 8, 2015, Dustin won the WGC Cadillac Classic and finished sixth at the Masters in April.

Heading into the U.S. Open, Johnson’s skills matched up with the hazards of the Chambers Bay golf course as well as anyone’s. He is one of the longest hitters on the tour with a respectable putting stroke.

Fast forward to “Five Hours Earlier.” We see Johnson on the practice range and putting green.

We then see him tee off on the first hole as part of a four-way tie with Spieth, South African Branden Grace and Australian Jason Day. Spieth and Grace teed off just before Johnson and Day.

The crowd was pulling for a good showing from Day. Despite playing while visibly suffering from vertigo, Day won millions of fans during the weekend by his display of Aussie toughness and finishing in a tie for ninth at even par.

Many thought Day would be the biggest story coming from the final two players, but fate was writing another script. Not even the ridiculous condition of the putting greens (one player compared them to putting on broccoli) could overshadow what would happen on 18.

Johnson hit the ball long and straight and made a couple of putts to take an early two-shot lead.  He had a chance to extend, but missed several makeable putts.

Surely he must have looked at Gretzky (all of the family was there) wondering if one of his former goalie opponents was keeping the ball out of the hole. Johnson faltered during the middle holes, setting up the dramatics of the 17th hole.

As the script now moves to present time, Johnson is lining up his putt. He tells his brother and caddie, Austin Johnson, that he had always dreamed of this moment.

Then, despite merely tapping the ball, it missed just above the hole and slid three feet by. It appeared the U.S. Open was about to head for its silly, outdated 18-hole playoff on Monday.

Choke is a cruel word, but major champions do not miss putts like that. But that is precisely what Dustin Johnson did.

Despite the devastating turn of events, Johnson’s first Father’s Day was special for family reasons. While a chair awaited him at the awards ceremony, Johnson walked off the course holding Tatum over his head as a proud father would.

“My trophy at the end of the day is holding up my little man,” Johnson told The New York Times.  “No matter what, I’m going to hold my head high and be happy.”

A victory would have lifted the head a little higher and made him a lot happier. Under the circumstances, he will probably get a pass –- once –- for skipping what would have been a difficult moment at the ceremony.

The only way to put Chambers Bay behind him is to take advantage of his next opportunity, which will likely come sooner rather than later. We should see Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth doing battle again in the near future if not this year.

After his long night, Johnson woke up Monday to his 31st birthday. As the muted celebration begins in the Johnson home….

Fade to black.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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