Brian Keogh in Los Angeles
American skipper Paul Azinger has changed the format for the opening session in this year’s Ryder Cup at Valhalla from fourball to foursomes in a move designed to give the United States a first morning lead for the first time in 18 years.
With the blessing of the PGA of America, ‘Zinger’ plans to set up the course to suit his team and a no-rough option could give a power-packed side a major advantage.
“I don't know if I can narrow the fairways, but I can sure have the rough deep," Azinger said recently. "But if I have a bunch of Bubba Watsons, J.B. Holmes, Pat Perez, Phil Mickelson, guys that crank it and bomb it, maybe there won't be rough. I don't know yet. We'll see."
Azinger didn’t mention Dustin Johnson, the 6 foot 4 inch, 190 pound rookie from Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, who has made a big impression since won the Walker Cup at Royal County Down last September and went on to earn his PGA Tour card at the Qualifying School.
The 23-year-old southerner has plenty of game and made four cuts out of four in his rookie season - finishing tied 10th in the Sony Open in Hawaii, 12th at the Bob Hope, 37th in the FBR Open and then seventh in last week’s Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Azinger won’t have missed the fact that Johnson is mighty long off the tee - third only to Watson and Holmes in driving distance this season with an average of over 304 yards.
Nor will he have failed to notice Johnson's opening 68 in the weather delayed Northern Trust Open which left him tied for fifth when play was finally completed yesterday morning.
“It was solid,” he said in gentle drawl. “Nothing fancy. Made some good up and downs.
“But it was tough out there with the wind really blowin’. Like being back in Ireland there. I’ve been playing just solid. I haven’t been hitting it that great. Had a couple of good rounds is all.”
With four captain’s picks, Johnson could be in line for a Ryder Cup call up to go with his memorable Walker Cup debut. So far he’s 18th on the money list and crept to 29th on the US Ryder Cup standings.
His opening drive at Royal County, where he partnered Colt Knost to a halved match with Rory McIlroy and Jonathan Caldwell, is the stuff of legend.
“He made contact as the guy was saying Dustin Johnson. He didn't even let the [announcer] finish his name. He just smoked it,” Knost recalled. “He hit it like 400 yards off the first tee and that's no exaggeration. He out-drove Rory by like 80 yards.”
Johnson smiles at the memory. “I was nervous. Really nervous. But it helped because I got some adrenaline going and really hit one good.”
Whether the Ryder Cup is in his thoughts or not is anyone’s guess. “I’ve got a lot of goals, but they’re personal goals,” he said after parring the last three holes of his incomplete first round in an increasingly impressive start to his rookie season.
Johnson still has rough edges, especially in the short game department. In the second round, he opened with a birdie at the 10th but then bogeyed the 11th and double bogeyed the 13th after taking four to get down from inside 50 yards each time.
Back nine birdies at the fifth and sixth left him inside the top 15 on two under par with three holes remaining as the swirling wind that affected the late starters on Thursday, greeted them again when they resumed yesterday morning.
After opening with a 72, Justin Rose took five to get down from greenside sand at the second and a triple bogey seven there sent him spinning to a 75 and a missed cut on his 2008 debut.
It was a similar story for fellow Englishman Lee Westwood, whose run of seven successive top 10 finishes came to an end with a nightmare 78 for a 10 over par total.
US based Paul Casey rallied from his opening 73 with a fine 70 after poaching back his Scottish caddie Craig Connolly from Colin Montgomerie.
“I have grown up a lot in the 12 months. I was too hard on Craig,” he admitted. “What is it they say about only recognising a good thing when it is gone. I couldn’t be more delighted to have him back on the bag.”
But it was Connolly and not Casey, who broke the news to Montgomerie.
“I was dreading making the call to Monty,” said Connolly, who split with Casey following last year’s US Open. “But he was fantastic about it.
“What made it so difficult is that he has been working with his coach Pete Cowen and it is only a matter of time before he wins again.”
David Toms carded a three under par 68 to take the early clubhouse lead on three under par - three strokes behind overnight leader KJ Choi and Chad Campbell.
But there was a solid start for Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who made an outrageous up-and-down from heavy rough, flopping the ball to 10 feet from an impossible position and then holing the putt.
Harrington then blasted the longest drive of the day at the 11th, a 307 yard monster, but misread a three foot birdie putt after laying up and then bunkering his third.