Spring 2021

Dustin Johnson – Pushing the Limits


By Robert James


The days in that Las Vegas hotel room had to be a bit traumatizing for Dustin Johnson. Not only was he stuck there in isolation, unable to exercise or play golf, but unable to leave, period.


Johnson, 36, saw the coronavirus hit home back in October when he was preparing for the Masters. Ready to embark on a two-week swing of tournaments that would help him get ready for the postponed Masters, Johnson could only fret away the time.


Having tested positive for COVID-19 at the PGA Tour stop in Las Vegas called the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek, Johnson was forced to self-isolate in his room for 11 days. Meals at the door. No human interaction. And plenty of time to ponder.


His biggest takeaway? “At least I know I’ll get to play in the Masters.”


And that he did.


Not only did Johnson play, but he won the Masters. In record-setting fashion, too, shooting 268, 20 under par, to shatter the record of 270 held by Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth.


More people than expected surrounded the 18th green as Johnson put the finishing touches on his victory. The tournament went without spectators due to the pandemic, but approximately 800 Augusta members, their guests, volunteers and media formed a circle around the green. And when Johnson walked off, there was two-time champion Bubba Watson, wearing his green jacket there to greet him and welcome him to the club.


“I’ve been dreaming of putting that jacket on my whole life,” Johnson told him. Johnson, who went with a size 42 long, now has 24 PGA Tour victories, a number surpassed by only Woods (82) and Phil Mickelson (44) among active players. And a Masters victory goes a long way toward validating that U.S. Open triumph four years ago at Oakmont, the lone major that was haunting him because he failed to add to the total.


For the first time, Johnson held at least a share of the 54-hole lead in a major and finally converted. He’s a Hall of Famer no matter how you look at it, and there is no reason there cannot be bigger things ahead.


But for a guy who grew up in nearby South Carolina, it’s hard for it to get bigger than the Masters. He’s now got a lifetime invitation to one of the game’s most revered places.


“I’ve never had this much trouble gathering myself,” Johnson said following the green jacket ceremony, tears forming as he could not get the words out.


Truth be told, Johnson should have had more majors at this point, a long list of close calls and final-day calamities dotting his resume. His most recent was a tie for second at the PGA Championship in August, where a final round 68 was certainly no shame but was surpassed by surging Collin Morikawa.


It was the fifth time Johnson had taken at least a share of the 54-hole lead into the final round of a major championship, all of the previous attempts coming up short.


“The more you’re there, the more opportunities you’re going to have,” said Claude Harmon III, Johnson’s coach. “And I think that’s the thing that he does so well.


He’s just so consistent. We get lost in the distance. We get lost in a lot of stuff. But look at the run he’s been on (in 2020). Almost every single week he has a chance.”


“Second (at the Masters) last year, second at the PGA, sixth at the U.S. Open. To win (at Augusta), that’s the type of stuff that Jack (Nicklaus) and Tiger did. I think this was an opportunity for him to kind of flip the script and kind of change the narrative. I think the narrative now looks very different than it looked with four 54-hole leads and all the things that he’s done. He’s just a hell of a golfer. He doesn’t get enough credit for being the golfer that he is.”


Johnson played at a consistently high level following the three-month pandemic break, winning the Travelers Championship in July and then finishing no worse than a tie for 12th in the eight tournaments he played through the Masters.


During that stretch, he tied for second at the PGA Championship, won the Northern Trust (shooting 30 under par), lost in a playoff to Jon Rahm at the BMW Championship, then won the Tour Championship and thus the FedEx Cup (and a $15-million bonus), tied for sixth at the U.S. Open, and tied for fourth at the Houston Open.


That later showing in Houston was a relief. It was Johnson’s first tournament in nearly two months, and followed his isolation period that caused him to miss the CJ Cup and the Zozo Championship. Who knew how he might respond? It ended up being the confidence boost he needed.


Johnson might have had enough mental scar tissue to overcome regardless, although he’s always shown an amazing resiliency to bounce back. He won the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, for example, a year after three putting the final green at Chambers Bay to blow the U.S. Open to Spieth, who won by a shot.


There have been other meltdowns, such as the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the final-hole rules breach at the 2010 PGA Championship, the out of bounds iron shot on the final day at Royal St. George’s in 2011.


In 2019, he finished a shot behind Woods at the Masters and finished second to Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship. He had a total of 10 top-5s in majors and had been a runner-up five times.


“I put myself in the situation a lot of times,” he said. “I know what it takes.” Johnson twice shot 65 during the tournament. He led after every round. And when it got close on Sunday, he fired a laser at the 6th green to set up an easy birdie and push aside any threat.


When it was over, he had tears in his eyes and a green jacket draped over his shoulders. The only negative is that he will get to keep it for such a short time, with another Masters looming in April.


Then again, who is to say that Johnson won’t defend his title when the Masters is played again?



Spring 2021