Defying definition

On the heels of an epic collapse, Dustin Johnson refuses to let his critics have the final word

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Dustin Johnson looked befuddled by the question. How long did it take him to get over the disappointment? Dude, what disappointment? He played great. Why in the world would he be disappointed?

There is something mesmerizing about collapse in sports. You have some of the most wonderful athletes in the world — men and women, born with otherworldly talent, who dedicate countless hours and days to perfect their craft. They are ultra-successful, heroes of their hometowns, idols of their neighborhoods. Then, in one dark moment, they became known for failure.

Bill Buckner becomes known for one ground ball through the legs. Scott Hoch becomes known for one putt that does not drop and so does Doug Sanders. Earnest Byner is remembered for one fumble, Ralph Branca for one pitch, Dan Jansen for falling down, Jana Novotna for double-faulting a chance to go up 5-1 at Wimbledon, Scott Norwood for a Super Bowl kick that faded wide right.

They each handle such luckless ignominy differently, some by avoiding the topic entirely, some by embracing it, some by coming back and securing a resurrecting victory. Dustin Johnson seems to be inventing a new way to deal with such a legacy: He insists that it never bothered him in the first place.

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At the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay a month ago, Johnson came to the last hole trailing by a shot. He struck two majestic shots, leaving himself 12 or so feet away with an eagle putt that meant victory. He missed that one. He then faced a 4-footer that would have secured a spot with Jordan Spieth in a playoff. He missed that one too.

It was terrible to watch, and in the moment it felt like a colossal failure, one that would put him in the company of those poor unfortunate souls remembered mostly for one miserable defeat. Except Johnson does not accept the premise.

“Like I’ve said a bunch of times, the U.S. Open wasn’t — there’s really nothing to be upset about,” he says. “I played well. I did everything I was supposed to do. I mean, I was even hitting good putts.”

The greens at Chambers Bay were, by all accounts, atrocious, dead, practically dirt in some places. Johnson’s contention is that on that 18th green, there was no way to control where the putts bounced and kicked: “That ball went wherever the greens wanted it to go, not where you wanted it to.”

There will be those, of course, who call this sour grapes, who will argue that everyone putted on the same surfaces and that if Johnson had a champions nerve, he would have found a way to get the ball into the hole. But isn’t there a larger truth in what Johnson says? He DID play incredible golf. He DID face chewed up and lifeless greens. His final putt DID kick left. People will always try to define you. Question is: Can they define you if you don’t let them?