Lateral Hazard: Dustin Johnson leaves big impression with win in PGA opener

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

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Dustin Johnson took a four-shot victory in the PGA's opening event of the season. (AP)

After days and days of wind-blown golf balls, of tailored slacks snapping in the Hawaiian trade winds, of false start after false start, the 2013 golf season is underway, and already we have our slogan for this year.

The PGA Tour: These Guys Finish On Tuesday!

What an odd beginning, this delayed, shortened, 54-hole Tournament of Champions at Kapalua. There was no Rory, no Tiger, no Phil; no Ernie, no Luke; no Justin. There was also no Friday, no Saturday and no Sunday, owing to weather. There was a beefy leader board by Tuesday's close, however – nice to see you, and Happy New Year to Bubba and Stricks; to Keegan and Rickie.

But the best news of all for the nascent calendar year is that Dustin Johnson's driver made it to the islands safely, and for good use.

Wow, what a sight. Hard to tell which was more breathtaking: the aerial shots of migrating winter whales in the Pacific, the silhouette of Molokai from elevated tee boxes, or the coil and impact of the 28-year-old Johnson unleashing a driver that calls to mind the great heavyweights of the game.

Remember way back when Bill Clinton was President and Tiger Woods was the longest guy in the field, by a mile? Dustin Johnson might as well use Tiger's old driver as a toothpick to dislodge food from his back molars.

[Also: Dustin Johnson wins PGA Tour opener]

When Dustin Johnson breaks out his driver – which is essentially every hole he's ever played, and he's trying to figure out how to use it on 130-yard par-3s – the numbers burst. According to The Golf Channel, he pumped two drives north of 400 yards at Kapalua. He leads the Tour in 400-yard-plus drives since 2003. And he led Kapalua in driving distance, at 307 yards.

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Johnson showed off his driver throughout the Tournament of Champions. (AP)

In a week where noted slugger Barry Bonds faces Cooperstown judgment for his power numbers, it's nice to see at least Johnson's golf bag isn't sponsored by BALCO.

Like John Daly, Johnson combines his otherworldly distance with pillow-soft hands around the green. Unlike John Daly, thankfully, Johnson doesn't have enough baggage to fill a mini-van.

If you don't believe me about Johnson's short game, ask Steve Stricker, the short-hitting grinder who formed the almost-comical foil to Johnson in Tuesday's final pairing. Playing tortoise to Johnson's hare, Stricker whittled Johnson's overnight three-stroke lead down to one, and had the lanky South Carolinian in his sights on the 14th hole.

That is, until Johnson damn near drove the 14th green, then gorilla-dunked on Stricker by chipping in for eagle. Game, set, match.

Stricker, ever the polite Midwesterner, made sure to slap Johnson five for the tourney-clinching "2."

That's the thing with Johnson. You get the feeling his peers know he's got the physical tools to dominate them, and they'd be slapping him five on a weekly basis if not for a few things. One, golf is hard. Two, guys like Rory McIlroy feel like their alpha-male gene is as strong, or stronger, than Johnson's on a weekly basis. And three, Johnson has shown a frustrating proclivity to overuse his driver and find trouble.

[Also: Is Dustin Johnson dating Wayne Gretzky's daughter?]

Now, that's a tough thing to say about a guy who just won for the sixth year in a row. Nobody since Tiger has left a U.S. college to turn pro, then won at least once in six consecutive years. There are many ways to laud Dustin Johnson, including his now-No. 12 world ranking, his 3-0-0 record at the 2012 Ryder Cup and his seven career wins before age 30 – most on Tour. Never mind that three of those wins, oddly enough, were in 54-hole events. Somebody's got to win them.

What you can also say about Dustin Johnson is that Kapalua reminded us that we expect so much out of the guy. Any golf fan knows Johnson's shipwreck at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the Ballad of the Mistaken Bunker at Whistling Straits in 2010, and the near-miss at the 2011 British Open when he double-bogeyed the 14th hole. Johnny Miller took the opportunity at Kapalua to say Johnson is two or three course-management decisions away from really taking off. To whom much is given in sports, much is expected by fans. We expect a lot of wins out of Dustin Johnson. Maybe continued signs like arriving early at Kapalua, and playing six practice rounds, more than any other player, is a positive development. And maybe work with the master, Butch Harmon, will see it come to fruition in even richer form.

We're not sure we'll get it. But we do know this: He's pulling his driver from the bag as we speak.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

71-67-69 – 12-under 204, Steve Stricker, 2nd place, Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Plantation Course, Kapalua, Maui.

How nice a guy is Steve Stricker?

He told reporters after the tournament at Kapalua that he urged Dustin Johnson on the back nine to hit more irons off the tee, not to pump wayward drives because that only let Stricker back into the tournament.

Midwesterners: They raise barns for their neighbors, you know.

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Steve Stricker finished second in the Tournament of Champions. (Getty Images)

Stricker made more news at Kapalua by saying he was going into semi-retirement at age 45, paring down his schedule to a bare minimum, to spend more time at home with his wife and two daughters. The glory and paychecks of the PGA Tour don't mean as much to Stricker as they do others, so he's going to play the majors, some World Golf Championship events and otherwise be Steve Stricker, father, husband, friend, good dude.

Of course, decisions like that are easier coming off of a 2012 season with $3.4 million in earnings, and a career total of over $35 million. It helps the savings account to add $665,000 from his 54-hole runner-up finish at Maui.

Some speculated that Stricker was wounded by his 0-4 mark at the Ryder Cup; that his career has had so many rough stretches (twice, he's won Comeback Player of the Year) it's time to take his foot off the gas pedal. But he said that's not the case, and there's no reason not to believe him. If anybody shoots straight – and hits the golf ball straight, 18th on Tour in greens in regulation last year – it's Stricker.

Besides, another guy went 0-3-1 at the Ryder Cup this year, and he's rumored to play his usual schedule in 2013. Yep, that's Stricker's old buddy, Tiger Woods.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"It's like he's starring in a movie, 'The Winds of Maui,' and he's trying to make it very dramatic." – Johnny Miller, NBC/The Golf Channel, evaluating the lengthy time Ian Poulter took to strike a putt in Sunday's eventually postponed first round at Kapalua.

[Also: David Duval upset over Humana snub]

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Ian Poulter wasn't too happy with Johnny Miller's criticism of him. (Getty Images)

You can almost imagine Johnny Miller at home on New Year's Eve, watching Ryan Seacrest and the Times Square ball drop at midnight, then announcing his resolution to his family: "In 2013, I won't wait a week before I start tweaking Poults. Happy New Year, everyone!"

Of course, Poulter filled his role as "The New Monty" according to script. Just as Colin Montgomerie spent the 1990s sporting rabbit ears sensitive to any heckle in America, Poulter seems to allow Miller easy entry into his goat farm, to get any goat Miller wants.

Instead of brushing off Miller's comment, Poulter took to Twitter and essentially challenged Miller to some sort of duel, tweeting: "Why don't you say that stuff straight to my face?"

I think all golf fans can agree, the last thing we need is the sight of Miller and Poulter going MMA in the golf octagon. So, Johnny, stay in the tower. You continue to entertain.

And Poults – you essentially started the greatest Ryder Cup comeback in history, single-handedly, just three months ago. (That's another way in which Poulter is the New Monty; Ryder Cup heroism.) You're better than this. Brush Miller's comments off your shoulder. As the kids say on the Twitter: Haters gonna hate.

That is what they say, right? I mean, I'm 45 years old, so I'm just guessing.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

It'd be nice to give the Hyundai sponsors a weather mulligan, for having their tournament blown straight out of the prime-time sports weekend and into the death of a Tuesday afternoon. But who wants to give multi-national corporations a mulligan, especially when Hyundai got more than their share of sponsor pop by posting that gigantic sign behind the 10th green, easily the largest corporate sponsor signage I've seen at a Tour event. From space, you can see two things: the Wall of China, and the Hyundai sign behind the 10th green at Kapalua.

So, let's stick with the golf.

Let's look at Brandt Snedeker, the guy who just spent the last three months wondering how, in a year where McIlroy won a major and Woods won three times, he was the guy who took home the $10 million FedEx Cup check. He wasn't complaining while he wondered, by the way.

[Also: Retief Goosen returns after back surgery]

Snedeker can get hot, and did on Tuesday when he went birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie on holes three through six to get to 11-under par, one shot back of Johnson. Would Snedeker back up his FedEx payday with a season-opening win, based on a dynamite final round?

Nope. He had a three-foot putt for par on No. 7, and flat missed it. That started a hat trick of bogeys and Snedeker would have to settle for third place. For a guy who led the Tour in 2012 in Strokes Gained Putting, the miss was a shocker.

But it was representative of the year's lid-lifter. As Snedeker said afterwards, "the rust took over a little bit."

So, for all the players who felt the January rust, for all the snowbound players in the Midwest and the East who know that the first 3-footer of the year to save par will look daunting, let's go back out to the seventh green and – give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

We don't get to say this often in this column space, but: Stay tuned, golf fans. We're hours away from another PGA Tour event.

The Tuesday finish means the first full-field event of the year is moments away, the Sony Open on Oahu. It's the coming-out party for all 25 rookies who earned their card from the Web.com tour, and all are playing at Waialea.

Dustin Johnson will catch the island-hopper to Oahu and play, too. One presumes he'll let his driver fly first class in the seat next to him.

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