Commentary

Can Dustin Johnson play smart?

Solid start at the Open Championship, but is trouble going to find him again?

Updated: July 19, 2013, 9:43 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

GULLANE, Scotland -- And now it's time to play: What Cement-Brained Thing Will Dustin Johnson Do This Time?

Will he mistake a bunker rake for the flagstick?

Will he skip the 16th hole?

Will he forget this Open Championship at Muirfield is a four-day thing and fly home Saturday night?

Johnson, whose 68 Thursday puts him right in the soup of this Open Championship, is capable of anything. Do you realize he hit a 225-yard 7-iron Thursday? And a 290-yard 3-iron? But he's also so dense, light bends around him.

Johnson has more talent in his thumbs than most guys have in their whole bag, but he's not exactly Stephen Hawking. The heaviest reading he does is sprinkler heads. He's blown three Sunday afternoon leads in majors in the past three years, all by doing things so dumb it drops your IQ 10 points just to recall them.

[+] EnlargeDustin Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDustin Johnson always seems in a hurry. Can he slow down and stay out of his own way?

Remember the U.S. Open at Pebble when he started swatting at his ball left-handed? How about the PGA at Whistling Straits, when he grounded his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole? The Open Championship at St. George's, when he hit an iron on 14 out of bounds?

"I'm telling you, he's changed," protests Johnson's caddie, Bobby Brown. "We've changed, as a team. We have one watchword now: 'Slow down.' "

OK, that's two words or maybe three, but you get his point.

"Besides, maybe those things had to happen for us to learn," Brown says. "Sometimes we just move too quick. We're taking our time now."

Johnson's career is off to a very fast start -- his seven PGA Tour wins are the most by any current player under 30 -- and his life is anything but slow.

He dates Instagram pinup girl Paulina Gretzky, daughter of the hockey legend, the Sunset Boulevard of women -- gorgeous, curvy and dangerous. Which means he spends a lot of time dodging paparazzi.

Johnson doesn't think, he just does. Last year, he attended Wayne Gretzky's fantasy hockey camp and watched. This year, he's going to play in it.

"Probably a left winger," he says. "A scorer."

Wait. You're going to play hockey? On ice? Against other humans?

"Yeah!"

Uh-oh.

Johnson does everything fast. Down the fairway, he tends to walk 40 yards ahead of everybody else, but now, at 29, he's at least training himself not to get the club out until it's his turn. Sometimes he'll have it halfway out and then drop it like it's a snake.

"Yeah, I mean he'll still Usain Bolt you right out of the tee box," Brown says, "but then he'll catch himself and slow down."

Nobody could slow Johnson down at the Pebble Beach U.S. Open in 2010, when he had a 3-shot lead going into the second hole Sunday and then had a left-handed swat before anybody could say, "Triple-bogey."

Nobody could slow him down at Whistling Straits that same year in the PGA Championship when he set the club down in a decidedly un-bunker-looking bunker on 18, despite warning signs posted in the players' locker room identifying them as such. The 2-shot penalty blew him out of both the win and the playoff.

[+] EnlargeDustin Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDustin Johnson has won seven times on the PGA Tour. Does he have all the answers? No. Can he win a major? Yes.

The nice thing about Johnson, though, is his game is long and his memory is very short. He seems to have all the cares and worries of a 6-year-old with a Fudgsicle.

"I wish I had his ability to get over bad shots," Jason Day says. "He hits a bad one and he's over it right away. You can tell just the way he walks. He's just happy to be playing golf. Me, I hang on to them."

Brown likes to describe how little Johnson hangs on to anything: "He gets over it thisfast," then Brown claps his hands, loud. "He's just so cool. He doesn't throw a club. He doesn't swear. Nothin'. The most you'll get is four  words, 'C'mon, DJ!' "

OK, that's three words, but you get the idea.

Johnson even got over Brown himself. They were together for years before Johnson fired him over a non-golf dispute and hired Joe LaCava. When Woods stole LaCava in fall 2011, Johnson took a mulligan with Brown. The whole separation lasted eight months. They've won twice since and are threatening to win the big man's first major, which you just know is coming. After all, when your man can leave his driver in the bag and hit 290-yard 3-irons at the bowling alley known as Muirfield, you've got to like your chances.

"The guy is just so talented," Brown says. "He's like a horse you can handicap. There's a certain time of the year when he just starts getting really good. ... Right now is that time."

And those are six words to remember.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com