After launching a 332-yard drive to the middle of the fairway, Dustin Johnson only had a 3-iron into the 588-yard, par-5 12th. Unfortunately, he had an awkward stance and pulled his approach shot into the narrow hazard that encircles the green.
He walked into the hazard with a wedge and took some practice swings in the air. Johnson stared down at his ball, with a hesitant but eager look in his eyes, taking his time to contemplate whether or not he should hit it.
It was obvious he wanted to go for the risky shot instead of taking a penalty-stroke and a drop. He didn’t have a terrible lie — his ball was kinda propped up in the grass — the problem was he didn’t have a backswing. He would have had to swing straight-up and straight-down, which wouldn’t have turned out well. Then he looked to the left of the pin where he would have had a little more room to take the club back.
“It’s easier if I hit it left,” he said, looking up at his caddie Joe LaCava, who started working with Johnson at The Players after looping for Fred Couples for over twenty years.
LaCava was standing above near the green and the line where DJ’s ball had crossed into the hazard.
“You can make the same score from here,” said LaCava, who is roughly 20 years older than his boss. “You’re not going to get it close if you go left.”
Johnson stared down at the ball again, but this time he thinking and taking LaCava’s words into consideration.
“Do you want to see where you would be if you drop it?” said LaCava.
More gaping down at the ball and thinking by DJ.
Finally, Dustin said, “OK, I’m just going to drop it.”
I found the entire discussion pretty interesting. First of all, I always like listening to the player and caddie talk over the options to get better insight into the shot, the situation and sometimes the psychological aspect. Usually, even when you’re inside the ropes, it’s tough to hear them confer because they’re standing so close to each other, but in this case, Dustin and Joe were about 10 yards away and we were able to eavesdrop.
The most interesting part was how much I learned about Dustin and Joe’s relationship and how Joe handles Dustin. The veteran, highly-respected looper chose his words carefully. There was no way LaCava was going to let DJ hit it out of the hazard, but he made DJ feel like it was his decision — like all healthy relationships.
He really wanted to try and hit it out of the hazard, didn’t he? I asked Joe after Dustin signed for an eight-under 63 and a tie of second through 36 holes.
“Oh yeah,” said Joe. “He wanted to hit, but I said, ‘No way.’
Well, not exactly in those words, but that was the point.
LaCava explained to me his thinking, but gave me the straight version: “I told him, ‘Come over here and look at where you’re going to drop it before you actually hit that ball in the hazard. You’re going to be basically on the green and you’ll make 5. What are you going to make from the hazard? You’re not going to make 4. You’re going to make 5, 6 or 7.’
“I think once he kind of looked at it that way, then it made sense.
“He didn’t have a backswing and he was going to come in steep and the ball might have gone onto the third green over there,” said Joe, half-jokingly. “He might still be in the hazard. Nothing good was going to come out of it.”
Flashes of images from the final round of the 2010 US Open appeared in my mind. You know, when Johnson, who had a four-shot lead going into Sunday, decided to chip left-handed from the thick rough near the second green. Which turned into a disaster and DJ posted a triple-bogey and eventually shot 82.
Of course, there was also the bunker-not-a-bunker debacle at the 2010 PGA Championship, which cost Johnson getting into a playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer.
Joe wasn’t on Dustin’s bag then. I know what’s done is done and we can’t know for sure what would’ve happened if LaCava had been there. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have found a way to talk Dustin out of those foolish mistakes and maybe things would have turned out differently at the end of the day.
“If I had more of a backswing, I would have hit it but I didn’t have much of one,” said Johnson during his post-round presser. “So it just wasn’t worth it to hit it.”
He also admitted to feeling a little frustrated after hooking his approach.
“I wanted to make a 4, so I was really thinking about hitting it,” he said.
LaCava added more insight into Johnson’s frame of mind.
“His mentality is he’s in the middle of the fairway with a 3-iron, he should make 4,” said LaCava. “So his mentality walking up the green is still, ‘I should make 4.’ Whereas my mentality — not that I’m right all the time — is 4 is no longer in the picture. We screwed up the second shot. Let’s make sure we make 5 and get out of there.
“But he’s still back in the fairway thinking I should make four from here all day long. He even said that walking off the green. Well, once you’re in the hazard, you gotta change that mode of thinking.”
Which is LaCava’s job as DJ’s caddie to help make that happen. And from what I saw today, he’s very effective.