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Long Skill Set, Short Memory Help DJ Join Lofty Company

June 14, 2017 Erin, Wis. By Dave Shedloski
Dustin Johnson comes into this year's U.S. Open both as the reigning champion and No. 1 player in the world. (USGA/JD Cuban)

With every succeeding generation of golfer, the template gets refined and refashioned, and evolution gives us a new standard of U.S. Open golfer. Bob Jones to Ben Hogan. Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods. And now we might be witnessing the emergence of the next great player to break the mold and reset the parameters.

Dustin Johnson, who powered his way past doubt and overpowered one of golf’s most acclaimed redoubts to capture the 116th U.S. Open last June, is fast becoming this generation’s player to emulate with his combination of strength and size, touch and tranquility. Right now, he looks like the man to beat in golf’s ultimate test for the foreseeable future. It isn’t so much that he slayed plenty of personal demons with his three-stroke victory at intractable Oakmont Country Club, near Pittsburgh. Given his physical gifts – 2015 U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth calls him “a freak athlete golfer” – the lithe South Carolina native seemed destined to bag one on sheer talent alone. But the quality of the game he has unleashed since then gives one pause to consider his potential in the coming years.

After winning his first major title, Johnson added five victories in his next 15 starts, including a run of three in a row starting in mid-February at the Genesis Open that enabled him to seize and then solidify the No. 1 ranking in the world. Whatever weight was lifted from his shoulders at Oakmont he now wields to bludgeon the opposition.

After being dispatched, 1 up, in the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in late March, talented young Spaniard Jon Rahm was left in awe of Johnson’s all-around abilities. “What’s to say? His power off the tee, it’s amazing. How he’s able to keep cool the entire round, it amazes me. And he’s just a perfect, complete player. Honestly, he doesn’t really make mistakes. I think he’s learned from what he’s done in the past, and he’s embracing it now and that’s why he’s winning tournaments.”

Johnson entered the year’s first major as the favorite, but on the eve of the 81st Masters Tournament, Johnson sustained a back injury in a freak fall down a staircase at his Augusta, Ga., rental home. He attempted to play, but the pain was too severe and he withdrew before his scheduled tee time.

It was a month before Johnson returned to action, and he barely missed a beat, tying for second in the Wells Fargo Championship. The next week he tied for 12th in The Players Championship, and he added a tie for 13th in the AT&T Byron Nelson before missing the cut in the Memorial Tournament, just his second missed cut of the season. The weekend off allowed Johnson to visit Erin Hills a few days early to prepare for his title defense. 

If there is a major for which Johnson is best suited, it’s clearly the U.S. Open. He arrives at Erin Hills having finished T4, T2 and first in his last three starts in the championship, though he could have won them all. And a chance for another title eluded him in 2010 at Pebble Beach when he led by three strokes after 54 holes only to be derailed by a final-round 82.

“One of the reasons I really like the U.S. Open is it’s always very difficult.  It’s not just a putting contest,” said Johnson, who turns 33 on June 22. “You’ve got to drive it around. You’ve got to hit great iron shots. You’ve got to chip and putt very well. And you’ve got to control your golf ball, because generally it’s very firm and fast. When it’s firm and fast, I’ve played very well.”

That about summarizes his performance at Oakmont, where, first and foremost, he unleashed a driving display that the proud club hadn’t witnessed on its fearsome acreage since Jack Nicklaus upended Arnold Palmer in the 1962 championship. Johnson’s final-round 69 enabled him to make up four strokes on 54-hole leader Shane Lowry and finish at 4-under 276. Only the trio of Lowry, Jim Furyk and Scott Piercy, who tied for second, joined Johnson in breaking par over 72 holes.

“The way he’s built as a person and as an athlete, I could have gone into the media center Sunday night after he lost at Chambers Bay [in the 2015 U.S. Open] and said, absolutely, Dustin Johnson will win the U.S. Open at Oakmont,” said Claude Harmon, who along with his father, Butch, have been the custodians of Johnson’s swing. “I probably would have been laughed out of the room. One of the greatest golf courses in the U.S. Open, that might be the last place Dustin could win. But he’s just a different kind of golfer. He has no rearview mirror. He’s a perfect specimen for the game, tall and flexible and agile. If you design a golfer, you design him.”

One of the reasons I really like the U.S. Open is it’s always very difficult. It’s not just a putting contest. You’ve got to drive it around. You’ve got to hit great iron shots. You’ve got to chip and putt very well. And you’ve got to control your golf ball, because generally it’s very firm and fast. When it’s firm and fast, I’ve played very well.
Dustin Johnson

Johnny Miller is of a similar opinion. “He might have the best physical attributes for a golfer ever,” said the 1973 U.S. Open champion and longtime NBC Sports golf analyst, who also won at Oakmont. “Not only because of his size, but also because of his strength and his flexibility. Plus, he has a nice blend of knowing just enough but not too much. He keeps it simple, which is really important under the gun, sort of like a Billy Casper. One swing key, and he goes out and plays. I think he feels like if he puts in the work, he has the best ability in all of golf.”

That ability was cultivated at an early age. Born in Columbia, S.C., Johnson was an uncanny four-sport highlight reel, excelling in soccer, basketball, baseball and golf. Athleticism runs in the family; his grandfather, Art Whisnant, was an all-conference basketball player at South Carolina. Dustin’s younger brother Austin, who played basketball at the College of Charleston and who now serves as his brother’s caddie, insists that Dustin could have competed at the Division I college level in any of the four sports. Dustin opted for golf and attended Coastal Carolina University for reasons that provide insight into his competitive nature.

“Golf was the one sport where I didn’t have to rely on anyone else but me,” he said, sounding very much like a certain four-time U.S. Open champion from Ohio whose competitive spirit was most fulfilled by golf. That’s Nicklaus, of course.

Like the Golden Bear, Johnson, who has grown to a wiry 6 feet 4, spent countless hours on the golf course as a youngster. The person who most influenced him was his father Scott, a teaching professional at the Mid Carolina Club, who gave Dustin the early tools to prosper. But Dustin did the rest, often playing 36 holes a day. “I’d play 18, go swimming in the afternoon, and play 18 more,” Johnson said with a grin. “Those were pretty good days.”

Johnson got used to many good days on the golf course. As a seventh grader, he competed on the varsity golf team at Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, S.C. That year he shot course-record 64s on consecutive days at Golden Hills Golf and Country Club in Lexington. As an eighth grader, he posted another course record, shooting 63 at the Club at Rawls Creek in Irmo.

He went on to become a three-time All-American at Coastal Carolina, and in 2007 he won the Northeast Amateur and his course-record tying 62 at Monroe Golf Club in Pittsford, N.Y., propelled him to the Monroe Invitational title. He turned professional later that year, but not before helping USA teams win the Walker Cup and the Arnold Palmer Cup.

After navigating the PGA Tour’s fall qualifying tournament, Johnson went deep into his rookie season of 2008 before winning the Turning Stone Resort Championship, igniting a streak that puts him in esteemed company. Johnson has won at least once every year since, a streak of 10 consecutive seasons that matches only Nicklaus, Palmer and Woods in the modern era. “Obviously, that makes me feel great,” said Johnson, who was unaware of the connection. “But I’ve got a long way to go before I’m ever mentioned with those three names.”

Oakmont was a start, as Johnson finally added a major championship to his resume after some well-publicized missteps. Pebble Beach was the first, but later that year at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wis., he was denied a chance to join a playoff between Bubba Watson and eventual winner Martin Kaymer when he was assessed a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole for carelessly grounding his club in a bunker. Further doubts about his finishing ability were raised in the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, where in the final round he pumped a 2-iron out of bounds on the par-5 14th hole to end his bid to overtake Darren Clarke.

Then came the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. Just about everyone forgets the three superb swings he executed on the final two holes, and no one forgets the awful three-putt on the 72nd green that left him a stroke behind Spieth. But Johnson hasn’t forgotten.

“I hit the shots I needed to hit,” Johnson said. “I hit a great shot into 17 and made birdie when I had to. Eighteen, I hit pretty much two perfect shots. And so I knew I had the game. I knew I could hit the right shots under the pressure. I knew it was just a matter of time.”

His time came at Oakmont. Seldom does a U.S. Open conquest come the year following a runner-up finish, but Johnson joined a select group. Bob Jones did it three times (1923, ’26, ’29), while the others who rebounded from disappointment were, like Jones, multiple U.S. Open champions: Nicklaus (1972), Payne Stewart (1999) and Woods (2008). Among that group, however, only Jones and Johnson won their first national title after such aching adversity.

Live and learn. Lose and learn.

Not only did Johnson drag around that anvil of anxiety from previous disappointments, his road to recompense at Oakmont was further shrouded in doubt on the final day because of a potential one-stroke penalty hanging over his head when his ball moved slightly as he prepared to address a putt on the fifth green. He was assessed the penalty after the round, but it hardly mattered as he calmly navigated the final holes and finished off the championship with three brilliant strokes for an emphatic birdie on the 72nd hole.

“People wanted him to be more beat up than he actually was, because it makes a good story,” Harmon said. “But Dustin is probably one of the most positive athletes and positive people I’ve ever come across. I’ve never heard him be negative, and I’ve never heard him beat up on anyone else and be critical. So when all of these things kept happening to him, he never complained, even though he was frustrated.

“At Chambers Bay, we were all in the locker room with him. David Winkle [his manager] was there. Austin was crying. We didn’t know what to say. Dustin is clearing out his locker, and he was like, ‘Look, I have nothing but positive thoughts about this place.’ When he left, he told me, ‘I played so good today. Next time I’m just going to get a bigger lead, so that I don’t have to worry about it.’ He never dwelled on the negative.”

“I think it’s clear that he’s the best player in the world. Not a question. None,” Miller said. “He’s the guy you have to look to in a major championship. A lot of factors go into that, but one big one is that he just goes and plays. You talk about the ultimate guy for ‘water off a duck’s back,’ that’s Dustin. That’s a real strength. He seems to forget about the crazy things that have happened to him. A lot of guys would have freaked out at Oakmont with that ruling. I would have been really ticked off, and I don’t get mad easily. Dustin has a great demeanor.”

About that demeanor that is the envy of his peers: Johnson will tell you he’s a percolating cauldron inside – he just flat-out suppresses the urge to exhibit nerves or frustration on the golf course. Afterward is a different story. At Royal St. George’s, a locker room attendant found a souvenir 2-iron in the trash bin, courtesy of Johnson, deposited in two pieces.

“I might have looked calm. I wasn’t. Let’s be honest here, I was not,” said Johnson, recalling last year’s finishing stretch. “But for 18 holes of golf that Sunday I was probably, from start to finish, the most focused I’ve ever stayed in 18 holes, where I never drifted or made one swing where I wasn’t absolutely focused on what I was doing. But as far as being calm, there was no calm inside, that’s for sure.”

The lessons of the past, painful as they have been, certainly forged a more steely competitor. “Being in those situations a number of times definitely helps,” he said. “You just need to understand what your tendencies are. You learn a lot about yourself. And I think Pebble probably would have been, for me – I know I played terrible that Sunday at Pebble where I had the lead – but it was one of the biggest learning experiences that I've had as a pro. Going back over my round with Butch afterward taught me a lot about myself.”

The people he has around him have contributed to his emerging dominance. Steadying influences have come from Winkle and from his brother, who has become a fine caddie and provides further positive reinforcement. The father-son Harmon duo have helped him groove his powerful swing to produce a lethal, reliable power fade that makes him the game’s best driver of the ball. His family life – Johnson is engaged to Paulina Gretzky, with whom he has a son, Tatum, and another son who was born on June 12 – provides stability and inspiration. And there is no discounting that Paulina’s famous father, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, has become an indispensable mentor.

“He’s the greatest that’s ever played in his sport. Just to be around someone who performed at such a high level for so long, to spend a lot of time interacting with him on a very personal level, it’s definitely helped,” Johnson said. “Anytime he calls and gives me some advice or just even to see how it’s going or telling me that I’m playing well, it means a lot.”

Of course, when a golfer steps on the first tee, it is all on him. Johnson has relished and embraced that challenge since an early age. And a recent rededication to improving and refining his game has paid dividends with his ascension to the top of the world ranking. He has taken complete ownership of his game and career. But, tellingly, Johnson is far from satisfied.

“Being No. 1, it drives me to work harder and to get better,” he said. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement in my game in all aspects. So I’m just going to keep working on it.

“I believe in my ability,” he added. “I’ve got a lot of confidence – confidence in my game and confidence in myself.”

That confidence is palpable when he is put on the spot. If he is playing his best golf, is he beatable? He didn’t hesitate as he stared down the questioner.

“I believe that I’m not.”

That belief is in the mold of all great players – even in one who appears ready to break it.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.