Fall 2016

Dustin Johnson. Don’t Look Now.

 

This is what they always feared. Not in a bad way, mind you. But in a way that makes them shudder at the possibilities, worry about their own place compared to his. What Dustin Johnson did in winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont and then following up with another victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is figure it out. It’s something all the other players in golf knew would one day happen. He was too good, too athletic, too skilled, too gifted not to find his way. And that might have taken figuring himself out, too. Johnson, 32, had knocked on the door of his share of majors, failing to come away with any of them until his strong final round at Oakmont Country Club, where he not only overcame himself but the rules officials. “There’s not an individual among my peers that are very surprised by what’s going on,’’ said Zach Johnson, who won the 2015 British Open. “He’s a supreme athlete and it just so happens that his sport is golf. Very talented. We can talk about his prowess, which there’s not many guys that can do what he does.”

 

“What stands out to me is his short game’s way better than people give him credit. He won a lot of golf tournaments and put himself in position in a lot of majors, and for him to come through the way he did given all the circumstances surrounding that was beyond impressive.’’ Johnson won his first major championship with the penalty-altered final-round 69 that was assessed penalty because his ball moved on the fifth hole as he was about to attempt a 6-foot par putt. After taking two practice strokes near the ball, Johnson briefly set his putter down before starting to put it behind the ball. At that point, Johnson recoiled, as the ball ever-so-slightly moved backward. He immediately called in a rules official and explained what happened; he said he did not ground his club, so the rules official told him to putt out. But after looking at video, Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of competitions, approached Johnson on the 12th hole to explain he might yet be penalized after all. And that led to a two-hour guessing game as Johnson and those chasing him wondered if he would be penalized or not.

 

He made it all a moot point when he played near-flawless golf over the closing holes, punctuating it with a birdie at the last to win by three – even with the penalty. “It definitely makes it sweet,’’ Johnson said of his victory. “It’s nothing new at this point, it’s happened so many times. I kind of expect it now. So for it not to affect the outcome is fantastic. It just shows how well I played.’’ Johnson is undoubtedly one of the game’s top talents. A long hitter, he has 11 PGA Tour victories including at least one in each of the last eight seasons. He is 2-0 in singles at the Ryder Cup, including one of just three victories on that fateful Sunday in 2012 at Medinah. And he is expected to be an important factor if the U.S. is to finally win the Cup at this year’s Ryder Cup in Minnesota. But he had never won a major, and the high-profile close calls were impossible to ignore, such as when he lost the lead at the 2010 U.S. Open and shot a final-round 82. Or later that summer when he grounded his club in a (admittedly dubious) fairway bunker on the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship, leading to a penalty that cost him a spot in a playoff. Or a year later when he trailed by just a stroke at The Open on the back nine at Royal St. George’s before hitting a 2-iron out of bounds on a reachable par 5. In 2015, he hit two perfect shots to the par-5 final hole at Chambers Bay, only to lose the U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted from 12 feet.

 

And just weeks later, Johnson led through two rounds in The Open at St. Andrews and had Spieth wondering how he could compete. He ended up shooting a pair of 75s over the closing 36 holes. “I think that Dustin Johnson is arguably the most talented player on the PGA Tour,’’ Spieth said. “I think (it was) a matter of time. I think he’s a freak athlete. I think he’s not only a freak athlete, but a freak golf athlete, like he has great hands, great club face control. “He hits some shots where you won’t see anybody else trying to. He’ll hit driver…and he’ll split a 15-yard fairway when everyone else is laying back, and it’s an advantage for him, and he takes advantage of it most of the time. I just think, yeah, it’s something that’s really incredible to watch.’’ The thing is, Johnson never let it really get to him, always keeping things very simple. “For the past few years, I feel like my golf game in total has been solid and consistent,’’ he said.

 

“Every week I feel like I’m up there and I’ve got a chance to win. It’s just…with this game, you’ve got to make putts. I mean, it’s just what you’ve got to do.’’ Before missing the cut at the PGA Championship – ending a tour-long streak of 25 consecutive events without missing a cut – Johnson had moved to a career-best No. 2 in the world and led the tour in top-10 finishes. Although he won just twice, he was seemingly in contention or finishing high on the leaderboard nearly every week. “He’s as relaxed and confident on the golf course as I’ve ever seen,’’ said his long-time agent, David Winkle. “I think he’s got a lot more in the tank.’’ Maybe it all began to evolve when Johnson took what he described as a leave of absence from the PGA Tour in 2014. He sat out the WGC-Bridgestone, the PGA, the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup.

 

He didn’t return until the following February, meaning he was away for six weeks. Perhaps family has had an influence, as he and fiancée Paulina Gretztky have a young son, Tatum. Her father, hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, has also been viewed as a sounding board and counselor. However it all came together, there is no denying that Johnson is a force that all could see coming. “Maybe he’s starting to figure out how to win more so than he did before,’’ Zach Johnson said. I don’t know. But I’m not shocked or surprised by the situation. He’s just very good at the game of golf, and it sounds like everything outside the ropes has got some stability and he’s got good family and that kind of thing.’’

Date
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Fall 2016