Dustin Johnson looking to clear major hurdle — his ‘friend’

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Dustin Johnson maintains Brooks Koepka is still “one of my best friends,” even though Koepka has supplanted Johnson as not only the No. 1-ranked player in the world, but also the most intimidating presence in golf.

Johnson, with his length off the tee and soft putting touch, was expected to get on a major roll after capturing the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont. But it remains his only major championship triumph, while Koepka has won back-to-back U.S. Opens and back-to-back PGA Championships.

“Obviously, what he’s done is fantastic,” Johnson said heading into Thursday’s opening round of the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. “It’s very impressive. He’s a great player. It seems like he steps up and plays really well in big events. That’s a sign of a really good player. Obviously, him being one of my best friends and we train a lot and practice and do a lot of things together, it’s cool to see.”

It has to be irritating, too. Johnson was once the next big thing in golf. But it’s Koepka, with his bulging biceps and growing collection of major championship trophies, who is the current king of golf.

It was interesting Tuesday when Johnson made it seem as if he and Koepka remain workout partners. Koepka earlier in the day, had said, “We don’t work out together anymore.”

Apparently, they still maintain a friendly, but competitive relationship.

“I’m sure he wants to kick my butt just as much as I want to kick his,” Koepka said.

Regardless of where their relationship stands, Johnson has to view this week’s venue as a golden opportunity to capture his second U.S. Open and second major. Pebble Beach suits his eye. Has two wins at the AT&T Pro-Am, played here annually in February, and he was also the 54-hole leader at the 2010 U.S. Open here before shooting 82 in the final round and finishing tied for eighth. Don’t count on that happening again if Johnson is in the hunt Sunday.

“It’s a golf course that I’m very comfortable on,” Johnson said. “Obviously, this time of year, it plays much different than it does in the AT&T. But it still is very helpful to know the golf course.”

Johnson flirted with winning his second major at this year’s Masters and at the PGA at Bethpage. He finished one stroke behind Tiger Woods at Augusta National and trailed Koepka by one stroke with three holes to play at the Black before suffering back-to-back bogeys at the 16th and 17th. The near misses have only heightened his confidence coming to Pebble Beach.

“It’s going to play difficult this week,” said Johnson, who has two wins and eight top-10 finishes this year. “But I feel like the game is in really good form. If the weather is like this the rest of the week, it’s going to be a fantastic week of golf. If I can putt well this week, I feel like I’ll be in contention on Sunday.”

Johnson normally has an advantage with his length off the tee. But Pebble Beach is the shortest U.S. Open course, at 7,075 yards, since Merion in 2013, allowing most of the competitors to use irons off the tee for accuracy.

“You’ve got to get it in the fairway,” Johnson said. “It’s going to play tough. You’ve got to be very, very precise.”

His 2010 Sunday meltdown is long forgotten. It was the first time he’d taken a lead into the final round of a major and a mixture of bad luck and shaky nerves doomed him. Now he has the comfort of his brother, Austin, as his caddie and much more experience in pressure situations.

It would be compelling to watch Johnson going for a second major and Koepka going for a three-peat in the final group on Sunday.

“I think we all know how tough [Johnson] is,” Koepka said. “I think we know he’s going to win a couple more majors. It’s inevitable. He seems to play well at Pebble just about every time he tees it up. So I would expect him to be up there come Sunday.”

Then we’ll see if they really are still good friends.

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