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Why Dustin Johnson might be ready to break through at a major

OAKMONT, Pa. – Redemption is shaping up as the theme of the 116th U.S. Open.

The leader board at Oakmont Country Club is packed with players who have experienced plenty of major-championship heartbreak.

Nobody illustrates that better than co-leader Dustin Johnson. Just last year, he blew a 12-foot putt to win this championship – then missed the 4-footer coming back that would have gotten him into a playoff.

Through his first 18 holes – all of which were completed Friday after three separate rain delays Thursday washed out Johnson’s first round – he did not make a bogey. The last time the U.S. Open was hosted here in 2007, not a single player accomplished that in any round. Johnson opened his second round by playing nine more holes without a blemish before finally dropping a shot on the par-4 first hole (after starting on the back side).

Undeterred, he grinded out an 8-foot par putt on the next hole. That’s a good sign for a player who has knocked on the door of a major title so many times, he’s put a hole in it.

“I like these greens,” Johnson said. “They’re tough, so you’ve really got to look at every bit of every putt and see what it’s doing.”

That’s as close as Johnson – who looks like he could stand unbothered in the middle of a hurricane – will come to showing any signs of stress.

“It’s a good, challenging golf course,” said Johnson, who started the tournament by hitting 25 straight greens in regulation. “It’s fun to play.”

As part of the afternoon wave that didn’t play a single shot Thursday, Johnson was able to take advantage of a soft golf course that was pummeled with nearly 3 inches of rain. He carded a 3-under 67 in the first round, then backed that up with a 1-under 69, putting out shortly before play in the second round was halted because of darkness at 8:42 p.m.

Among players with a morning tee time Thursday – when there was three rain delays – the scoring average was 75.22 strokes. That dropped to 73.27 for players scheduled in the afternoon – those who ended up playing Friday morning.

The favorable side of the draw didn’t mean everything, though. Lee Westwood is one of those who went out early Thursday and turned in a solid round of 3-under 67, which he finished off Friday. The 43-year-old Englishman who once knocked Tiger Woods out of the No. 1 spot in the world ranking, owns eight top-three finishes in majors. But he’s still chasing that elusive first championship.

““I’ve been out here a long time now,” said Westwood, who played in his first major in 1995. “I’m realizing what to do and what not to do when it’s conditions like this.

“I’ve been playing really nicely. I like a challenge. This golf course is certainly a challenge. It tests you mentally. I hit the ball well. A lot of fairways, a lot of greens. ... I’m pleased with the start. It’s a good way to start this championship. You don’t really want to be shooting a lot over par and having to chase.”

Westwood has played just seven combined starts between the PGA and European tours this year.

“I’m probably fresher than most people,” he said, adding with a long day looming Saturday, “I’ll probably cut down on the gym sessions and save the energy in my legs.”

One of Westwood’s starts this season was a tie for second at the Masters, which shows he can still be a factor in majors.

“It gave me a big boost – a big shot of confidence,” he said. “I hadn’t contended in a big tournament for a while. So was nice to get up there and hang about and give myself a chance. ... It was nice to feel those emotions again.”

Should he back up his 67 with another round in red figures Saturday, he’ll have another chance to experience those emotions.

Westwood has five career top-five finishes in the U.S. Open.

“People have always said that because I drive the ball pretty straight and my irons are pretty accurate,” he would have a chance to contend in this tournament. “I think I’ve had my chances at the Open. ... If you did look at my game, I suppose the U.S. Open should suit me more than the others.”

The list of players looking to exorcise their major-championship demons doesn’t stop there.

Maybe it’s Sergio Garcia’s turn. The 36-year-old Spaniard burst onto the scene at the 1999 PGA Championship when he finished second to Tiger Woods. Instead of a rivalry, however, what followed was a career of disappointment in majors. Garcia has played in 70 majors, with 20 top-10s, 10 top-fives and four second-place finishes.

He’s at 2-under through 36 holes, thanks to rounds of 68 and 70. With darkness looming, Garcia poured in a 50-foot par putt on his final hole Friday. That’s some more good momentum to build on for a player who won in his last start last month at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

“Every time you win, it gives you extra confidence,” he said. “I felt last week I had a couple of days where I couldn’t really practice that great, but I’ve settled down a bit and am hitting the ball well.”

Johnson shares the lead with Andrew Landry, who hit all of one putt Friday. At least it was a good one, as Landry birdied the par-4 ninth hole to finish his first round. He tees off at 7:11 a.m. Saturday for his second round.

Tied for fourth with Garcia are Scott Piercy and Shane Lowry.

Piercy’s scorecard featured all sorts of shapes, with a second-round back nine that went like this: Bogey, par, bogey, birdie, birdie, bogey, par, birdie, birdie.

So much for all that about needing to grind out pars at the U.S. Open.

There are seven other players tied for seventh with Garcia, at 1-under: Daniel Summerhays, Andy Sullivan, Jim Furyk, Scottie Scheffler, Kevin Streelman, Bubba Watson and Danny Lee. Among them, Lee, Watson, Streelman, and Scheffler have yet to start the second round.

With the soft conditions, there were 11 rounds in the 60s in the first round, after just 13 such rounds in the eight previous U.S. Opens contested at the course.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com