As Joel Dahmen stepped up to the podium for a post-round press conference on Thursday afternoon at The Country Club, he showed he was clearly in full-on Joel Dahmen, “I gotta be me” mode. “Can Joel Dahmen win a major … blah, blah, blah?” he asked jokingly, attempting to cut to the chase.
Well, can he? We’re about to find out.
Dahmen begins Saturday's third round of the 122nd U.S. Open with a share of the lead at 5-under 135 with Collin Morikawa, who at 25 is already a two-time major winner and is ranked seventh in the world. Dahmen is 34, has one PGA Tour win and is holding a 36-hole lead for the first time. Among the players within two shots of the lead are the top three, respectively, in the world rankings – Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, defending champion Jon Rahm and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, winner of the 2011 U.S. Open.
Long shot is written all over this guy. But that’s OK. He’ll readily concede the point. But Dahmen, a cancer survivor with an ultra-competitive streak, will not concede anything else.
“Do I believe in myself? Yeah,” said Dahmen, a native of tiny Clarkston, Wash., after rounds of 67-68. “If you look at my game and what I am, for me to make it on [the PGA Tour] for six years and play this well, that’s probably overachieving. I wasn’t an All-American. I wasn’t the best. It’s just understanding who I am and where I’m at.”
Usually wearing a bucket hat on his head and a smirk on his face, Dahmen gained recognition at the 2018 Quicken Loans National. He played with the tournament host, Tiger Woods, in the third round and acquitted himself well amid a raucous milieu with a 69. Then he made more news the next day when he held his ground in a Rules dispute with Sung Kang, insisting his playing partner took an illegal drop after hitting into a penalty area.
In golf parlance, this is called “protecting the field” when you believe another player might be bending the Rules. This is one aspect of the professional game that seems to have faded over time, but Dahmen harbors an old-time pro mentality, probably because he appreciates his station after a slow climb up through the ranks.
He was a decent junior player, but had to overcome personal tragedy in high school when his mother Jolyn died of pancreatic cancer. Both he and his brother would develop testicular cancer, and Joel underwent surgery and chemotherapy in 2011.
“I’ve been through life and death,” he told reporters during the 2018 FedEx Cup Playoffs on the PGA Tour. “This is not it.”
Dahmen embarked on a pro career on the PGA Tour Canada after attending the University of Washington for one year. It took time, but he has developed into a solid player, capturing Player of the Year in Canada in 2014, rising to Korn Ferry Tour status and eventually reaching the PGA Tour in 2017. Last year, he finally broke through for his first PGA Tour title at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship.
Ranked 130th in the world and with two top-10 finishes this season, Dahmen is a seriously intense competitor, though you wouldn’t know it by his self-deprecating sense of humor. “I'm super competitive. I love competing. I am the greatest backyard game player in the world,” he said. “Max Homa will tell you differently. But darts, cornhole. I would put myself against anyone, especially on the PGA Tour. But I just love being competitive. I love playing for whatever it is, cards. I've always been that way.”
Strangely, it’s a lack of seriousness that has allowed him to flourish in recent years. For three years running he has made the playoffs. He’s serious about his golf but not about his identity as a tour professional.
His personal motto is, "Have a lot of fun all the time."
“I've always just tried to be myself, I guess,” said Dahmen, who would much rather smile and interact with the crowd than just keep his head down and wrap himself in some cocoon of intensity. “My rookie year out here I was not myself. I was trying to be a pro golfer, and that's not who I am per se. I'm a little more laid back and like to have a little more fun, and I have my best friend beside me in Geno [Bonnalie, his caddie], and he is a ton of fun, and he's fun to be around.
“It's kind of weird how just us being ourselves and putting it out there for everyone, it's kind of endearing. It's pretty cool to have people root for you.”
This week’s U.S. Open at The Country Club marks Dahmen’s ninth major appearance. He has one top-10 finish, in the 2020 PGA Championship that Morikawa won. He missed the cut in his previous two U.S. Open starts, in 2019 and ’20. His tee time today at 3:45 p.m. EDT with Morikawa, the final pairing, prompted yet another smart remark about needing to be home for dinner at 5.
He'll be late.
But he doesn’t think he will be overwhelmed.
“Rocco Mediate took Tiger to 91 holes,” he said, referring to the 2008 U.S. Open that Woods won in a playoff. “I think I can do OK.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.