- Associated Press - Sunday, July 17, 2011

SANDWICH, ENGLAND (AP) - Dustin Johnson was right in the mix again, playing in the final group at a major championship, just two strokes off the lead as he stood over his ball in the 14th fairway.

He surveyed the green up ahead and reached into his bag for a 2-iron, knowing he needed at least a birdie on the par-5 hole to put some heat on Darren Clarke.

“It was definitely a go situation,” Johnson would say later. “It was pretty much dead in, so it wasn’t all that difficult.”

Clearly, this 27-year-old American doesn’t lack for bravado.

But one of these days, he’ll have to quit making huge blunders at the most inopportune times.

On Sunday, Johnson sent the ball sailing out of bounds, leading to a double-bogey that turned the final four holes into nothing more than a victory lap for Clarke. The Northern Irishman coasted to his first major title by three strokes.

Johnson’s breakthrough will have to wait a little longer.

“If I had to do it over again,” he said, “I’d hit a 3-wood instead of a 2-iron.”

But the pros can’t take mulligans. Johnson must live with the final round of last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he threw away a three-stroke lead with a brutal 82. He must live with missing out on a playoff at last year’s PGA Championship, where he didn’t bother to read the rules about all those obscure bunkers at Whistling Straits and took a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club on the 72nd hole.

And, now, he’ll have to live with picking the wrong club and hitting a brutal shot, ruining any hope of snatching away the claret jug on a wet, windy day at Royal St. George’s.

“It was brutal out there,” said Johnson, who limped in with a 2-over 72 that left tied for the runner-up spot with Phil Mickelson. “I think I held up pretty well. I hung in there all day, made some birdies on the back to get back in there and just unfortunately made the double-bogey on 14, which really just took all my momentum out.”

Indeed, Johnson showed plenty of resilience on a week that started quite poorly. He came down with a mysterious infection, his glands swollen up the size of grapes during the opening round. He played the first 12 holes Thursday at 4 over, looking as though he might be headed home before the weekend.

Johnson got himself going with a hole-in-one, posted two straight rounds in the 60s and earned a spot in the final group of a major for the third time.

Now, he’s just got to finish one.

“Like I say all the time, the more I put myself in this situation, the more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens in this situation,” Johnson said. “I think I did a pretty good job. It was very tough.”

No one thought Johnson would have a problem recovering from this latest disappointment.

“He’s one of the most resilient players I’ve ever seen,” said his coach, Butch Harmon. “He’ll be back. He just made one bad swing with a 2-iron that cost him a chance to win.”

Fellow American Rickie Fowler tried to express a similar sentiment but may have given some insight into why Johnson keeps making inexplicable mistakes.

Dustin really doesn’t think about a whole lot,” said Fowler, who also struggled to a 72 in the final round. “I don’t think he’s going to be too worried about it. He’s someone that gets over things pretty quickly. He’s a great player. I love the way he plays the game. He can hit the ball a long ways,and I wouldn’t worry about Dustin. He’ll be fine.

There were plenty of Americans on the leaderboard, but none of them could chase down Clarke.

Mickelson made the most impressive charge, playing the first 10 holes at 6 under and briefly pulling into a tie for the lead with an eagle at the seventh. But Lefty’s putter suddenly went cold and he staggered to the end with four bogeys, winding up tied with Johnson at 2-under 278 after shooting a 68 that could’ve been so much better.

Fowler, Chad Campbell and Anthony Kim tied for sixth, five shots off the pace, giving the U.S. five of the top seven finishers.

None of them occupied the only spot that really matters, extending an American drought that already was the longest in the modern Grand Slam era to six in a row.

Mickelson began to fade after missing a 2-footer at the 11th. Johnson, who had struggled to a 1-over 36 on the front side, finally got a couple of birdie putts to drop at the 10th and 12th, re-emerging as Clarke’s main challenger.

Two holes later, Johnson tried to pull off a little low draw with his 2-iron. He envisioned the ball curling right up next to the flag, which surely would’ve given him a shot at the birdie he needed to get within a stroke of Clarke.

Instead, the ball went right and disappeared into the thick, tall grass.

“I had a great week,” he said. “I came down with a little bit of illness, wasn’t feeling that well, so I didn’t know what to expect. I fought all week, and I didn’t have my best stuff this week for sure. But I hung in there and just fought around, and I think I did very well.”

Maybe next time, he’ll finish it the right way.

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