After years at the top of the game, Dustin Johnson tells us he's fully focused on adding to his Major tally.
Dustin Johnson Exclusive – “I’d Like To Get A Few More Majors”
On Sunday February 23, Dustin Johnson signed for a round of 70 at the WGC-Mexico Championship. By shooting even par over the four days at Chapultepec, the South Carolina man finished in a tie for 48th and pocketed just over $45,000. Having undergone surgery on his left knee in September 2019, this was only Johnson’s fifth event of the 2020 PGA Tour calendar. His build-up towards the Major season was under way.
Little did he – or any of us for that matter – know, this would be his last tournament for almost four months. By the middle of March, Covid-19 had hit the pause button on life as we know it. Instead of competing regularly to add more tour and Major titles to his world-class CV, Johnson, like the vast majority of us, was grounded. His ambitions for the year were placed on hold as he waited to see what lay in store for the future of professional golf.
Despite the uncertainty, Johnson was able to retain his sense of perspective. “I miss competing and I miss playing,” he explained. “Usually right now is a big part of the year. We would have played The Masters and the USPGA and then we’d have the US Open coming up soon, so it’s a really big part of the year. I am used to competing and playing right now but I’m not.
“So yeah, I do miss that part of it, but on the other side, it’s been really nice to be at home and spend a lot of time with my family, with the kids and Paulina. My kids love it because I’m at home and I am hanging out with them all the time. You can look at it one or two ways: it could be a bad thing, but I try to look at it as a good thing because I get to spend a lot of time with the kids and Paulina.”
In May, Johnson teamed up with Rory McIlroy in a one-off charity skins match against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff to raise money for the Covid-19 response. Before the event, McIlroy said this to pgatour.com about his partner: “They say that in golf you need a selective memory and he’s definitely got that. Any sort of setback is like water off a duck’s back for him and that’s probably his greatest strength.”
Anyone who has watched tour golf will be familiar with Johnson’s laid-back style. Watching his on-course demeanour, it is hard to work out whether he is five-under-par or five-over. Johnson’s placid temperament might be his greatest asset, but it also hides a clear determination to fulfil his potential.
In February 2017, Johnson won the Genesis Open in Los Angeles by five shots and in doing so became golf’s highest-ranked player. In total, he has spent 91 weeks at the pinnacle of the game – only Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Rory McIlroy and Nick Faldo have presided over the top position for longer. The story of how he emerged from the pack to take hold of the number one spot reveals the focus and resolve that lie beneath the surface.
“Winning the US Open kind of kick started my pretty good run for the past few years,” he explains. “I was having good seasons every year up until then; I was always top-ten but that’s what kind of propelled me to get to number one. I stayed as number one for a while, but that was the biggest jump.
“I think earlier that year, when we were in LA, that was when I got Trackman. Going through the stats, talking through them with Keith [Sbarbaro – TaylorMade’s vice president of tour operations] and talking to my coaches, it was clear that one part of my game where I could really improve was wedge play. It was all on me because I just never really practised it, especially not certain distances. If my feel was pretty good that week, I was probably going to win, but a lot of times your feel can’t be spot on.
“One thing that really helped me go from being a good player to being a great player was working on my wedges. For me, no matter how I’m swinging or how I’m driving, I know I can hit my wedges close. On the days you’re struggling, you can save a couple, three or four shots a round just by being able to get up and down.”
Even before he broke his Major duck at the 2016 US Open, Johnson was one of the PGA Tour’s most prolific money winners. Between 2014 and his maiden Major win, he recorded 26 top-ten finishes. His breakthrough triumph at Oakmont was his tenth PGA Tour win and in the following four years he has doubled his tally.
Having the ability to retain such a high level of performance, when the challenge facing you each week changes, is what separates those at the very top of the game. Johnson clearly has a rare ability to adapt his game and arrive on the first tee each week ready to win.
“Every win for me is very important, just because it is so hard to win out here on tour”, he explains. “Each week, anybody in the field can win the event. So it’s not that you’ve just got to beat the top 50 players in the world, you’ve got to beat everybody that’s in that field. I treat every week the same whether it’s a Major or just a regular tour event. I go into it and prepare like it’s a huge tournament because they all are.”
As most golfers, professional and amateur, can testify, holding your nerve to shoot a good score or to win a tournament is one of the great challenges of the game. That Johnson has the ability to get over the line, even in the biggest events, isn’t in doubt. And yet, despite having claimed six World Golf Championships, his 2016 US Open victory remains his solitary Major title.
Given the number of weeks he has spent at number one and the victories he has amassed, this seems a strange anomaly that serves to underline the difficulty of the challenge posed by golf’s four biggest prizes.
“If anybody knew exactly what it took to win a Major, they would probably win a lot more,” he reveals. “It takes a lot. I mean, everything needs to go well that week to win a Major, that’s for sure. It definitely takes patience and obviously you need to have your best stuff that week over four days, which is really hard to do.
“For me, the US Open at Oakmont in 2016 was probably the most focused I’ve been from start to finish in a golf tournament. Thinking correctly, making the right decisions – it sounds easy to focus for the whole time, for four rounds, but to focus on every shot for one day, it’s difficult. At least for me it’s difficult.”
That Johnson has achieved so much in the game is perhaps no surprise to those who followed his early progress. By channelling his obvious natural athleticism into golf, he excelled at a young age. An impressive collegiate golf career was capped in 2007, at the age of 23, with a berth on the winning US Walker Cup team at Royal County Down.
He turned professional later that year and immediately earned his card by finishing tied for 14th at the PGA Tour qualifying school. Incredibly, he has gone on to win at least one event every season since. That begs the question, looking back on his career to date, does he feel like he has under- or over-achieved?
“If you asked me on the first day I stepped on tour in Hawaii, from that moment I would say I’m ahead of where I thought I would be,” he says. “But if you ask me right now, looking back on my career, I think it should’ve been a lot better. I think it’s going to get better. When you first come out on tour, you really have no idea. You can say whatever you want, but you really, truly don’t know until you come out here and actually see it and experience how good these guys really are.
“I think my first week on tour I finished tied for tenth in Hawaii. If you’re looking at the golf course, it probably isn’t one that’s set up great for me, but I still competed and finished tenth in my first event, which was pretty good. So I knew at that point that I had what it takes to compete out here.”
As Johnson emerges from lockdown, he has a huge opportunity. If he can maintain his consistency of performance over the next decade or so, he has a chance to become one of the all-time greats. That he has the game, the temperament and the drive to make it happen is clear and his eyes are well and truly on the prize.
“I want to continue doing exactly what I’ve been doing. I would like to get a lot more wins, which is the goal. For me, it is about putting myself in a position to win, but you know, I’d like to get a few more Majors for sure.”
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