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Johnson has title to defend and point to prove

- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 9, 2011

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. (AP) - Dustin Johnson returns to Pebble Beach with conflicting emotions.

Rare is a defending champion who is looking for redemption.

Johnson has a chance to make history as the first player to win three successive years at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am since this iconic event began in 1937.

Forgotten is how he built a four-shot lead in 2009 and was declared the winner when rain cut the tournament short to 54 holes. Or how he smashed one last drive to set up an easy birdie from the bunker on the final hole last year for a one-shot victory.

No, the lasting image of Johnson at Pebble Beach comes from the U.S. Open last summer.

He had a three-shot lead going into the final round when he took two chips from the rough _ one of them left-handed _ and took a triple bogey on the second hole. Then came an aggressive play with the driver on No. 3 that he hooked into the bushes for a lost ball. His tee shot on the fourth went into the ocean.

It added to a colossal collapse in his first chance to win a major. Johnson closed with an 82, the highest final round by a 54-hole leader at the U.S. Open in nearly 100 years.

He had yet to get out to Pebble Beach by Wednesday, and planned to play only a couple of holes before sneaking over to Cypress Point. Johnson has moved into the celebrity rotation, meaning he will play Monterey Peninsula on Thursday and Spyglass Hill on Friday before he gets his first crack at Pebble Beach.

Which memories will come back?

"Neither," Johnson said. "I'm just coming out to play the golf course. It's still good, even though the last time I played it I struggled a little bit. But I'm still excited to get back out there and play. I'm always going to love this golf course, no matter what. I'm just ready to get back out and play."

But then he paused, and offered a slight smile.

"Get a little redemption for the last round of the Open," he said.

Johnson does not lose confidence easily. Despite a round that would haunt some players, he was right back in the mix two months later at the PGA Championship, poised to win another major until he failed to realize he was in a bunker on a Whistling Straits course that has too many bunkers to count. Instead of getting into a playoff, he wound two shots behind. Unfazed, Johnson won the BMW Championship a month later to mark himself as a rising star.

That's not to say he hasn't learned from his mistakes, especially at Pebble Beach.

Johnson attributes his U.S. Open blunders to playing and thinking too quickly. He is among the fastest players in the game, and Johnson spent the latter part of last year trying to slow down.

"In the first couple of rounds, I might get a little quick," he said. "I probably need to do it more in the first, second and third rounds than I do in the final round. The final round is when you're thinking and you're more conscious of what's going on. That's when it's most important, when you're under the gun and when you've got a shot to win.

"Slow for me is still pretty fast," he said. "I've got to feel like I'm moving pretty slow, which probably isn't slow."

The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am gets under way Thursday with the usual suspects _ Johnson going for a third straight win, Phil Mickelson trying to find momentum sometime before the Masters, Davis Love III playing for the 25th consecutive year, and Padraig Harrington making his PGA Tour debut.

Harrington was on his way out to Pebble Beach for a practice round when he bumped into Johnson. He stopped to shake hands and pass along a playful message.

"I'm trying to take the trophy off your hands this week," Harrington said.

"Good luck," Johnson said with a delivery that Clint Eastwood could appreciate.

Johnson might not be on top of his game as he was a year ago, when he was coming off a runner-up finish at Riviera. His season began with a couple of top 10s, including an outside chance to win at Torrey Pines.

He made more news for his relationship with LPGA Tour player Natalie Gulbis that surfaced at Kapalua, whatever that relationship was.

Even so, he gets most of his attention on the course.

"We've never had an athlete like that play this tour," Paul Goydos said. "He's the best athlete that I can think of who's playing out here. It's ridiculous to watch this guy work out. He's a tremendous talent who can do things that very few people have ever been able to do."

Johnson nearly had a chance to win as a rookie until he chopped up the 14th hole. He followed that with two victories.

He is not sure why he has such an affinity for Pebble Beach. He just does.

"I'm very comfortable out here," he said. "I think I've got this course figured out pretty well. I tend to play it pretty well. Confidence is huge, especially playing golf. If you're confident you're going to play well on the golf course, most of the time you do."

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