Golf

Johnson's flaws clear, even in a win

Dustin Johnson favors a driver, even when an iron seems more prudent.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Dustin Johnson is the best athlete on the PGA Tour.

Why, then, is he not the best golfer?

MR. 54

The Kapalua winds don't bother Dustin Johnson, who wins a shortened tournament for the third straight time.

To find an answer, perhaps it’s better to begin with what the 28-year-old natural — who won the PGA Tour season opener, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Tuesday — is, rather than what he’s not.

Johnson can dunk a basketball in bare feet, throw an impressively tight football spiral, hurl a 90 mph four-seamer and, in high school, scored goals for fun in soccer.

"Dustin's standing broad jump puts him in the 93rd percentile among NBA players,” his trainer, Randy Myers, told Sports Illustrated in 2011.

“His time in the three-cone drill (measuring speed and agility) puts him in the 80th percentile among NFL skill-position players.

“I've been doing this for 23 years, and he's the best athlete I've ever seen.”

Those who knew the 6-foot-4, 205-pound prodigy in South Carolina say he could have gotten Division I scholarships in several different sports but chose the one that came most naturally: golf.

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And maybe that was because it also was the one that came most easily.

Two years ago, I played a round of golf with one of Johnson’s former college teammates at Coastal Carolina whose first recollection of the school’s most famous golfing alumnus was that he never practiced.

“I mean, never. He’d just show up at tournaments and shoot 64,” he said.

It’s no secret that swing coach Butch Harmon was mortified when he began coaching Johnson and realized how little he worked on his game.

Harmon would tell the eternally laid-back Johnson that he needed to stop relying on natural talent alone if he wanted to reach No. 1.

He’d tell him stories of how hard Tiger Woods worked. But Johnson felt more of a kinship with Phil Mickelson, another prodigious natural talent not known for beating balls on the range.

(Harmon also told Johnson he needed to eliminate what he called “extracurricular activities” during tournament weeks, though on that score, Johnson spent the past week in Maui with Wayne Gretzky’s daughter, Paulina.)

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Those around him say that since Johnson moved to Florida and away from the Myrtle Beach area — where as a teenager he mingled with a less-than-desirable crowd — he has become more dedicated to golf.

He’ll never be Vijay Singh, who practiced even on Christmas morning, but he’s learning the value of honing his craft. Maybe he finally has realized what everyone already knew?

But I can’t help thinking that what’s holding back Johnson isn’t just a better work ethic. He has another flaw.

Despite a quirky lead wrist position and a shut clubface that requires some serious compensation on the downswing, Johnson is as long and as straight as they get.

He also has remarkably soft hands for a power player, and — under Harmon’s tutelage — has grown into a very sharp wedge player, helping to capitalize on those long drives.

And he can roll the rock.

Physically, I have no doubt that he’s the real deal. But it’s what lies in the six inches between his ears that’s lets him down in the past.

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The machine-gun-fast 82 with the lead in the final round of the 2010 US Open; infamously hitting from an (ill-defined) bunker on the 72nd hole of that year’s PGA Championship; the shanked iron out-of-bounds on the back nine at the 2011 British Open.

These are all symptomatic of a greater issue. The man has no clue when it comes to course management.

And so it was on Tuesday at Kapalua when Johnson took driver on the uncomfortable 13th of the Plantation course, where a long iron and a short iron and a safe par would have been prudent.

His drive sailed into the junk, and even though his ball was eventually found, it took Johnson two hacks to get back to civilization.

After a double bogey, his lead — which had been as high as five shots — was down to one.

“Walking off 13,” Johnson would later recall, “I was like, ‘Oh no, here it goes again.’ ”

But if he felt apprehension, he didn’t show it; he never does.

Johnson “piped” — Steve Stricker’s word — his driver on the next, then chipped in from 50 feet for an eagle.

Dustin Johnson in microcosm: double bogey, eagle; par for the course.

Even Stricker, his adversary, tried to spell out for Johnson the way the game’s meant to be played at this level with the lead, down the stretch.

“He's an impressive player, has a lot of talent, hits the ball a mile,” Stricker said. “But as I was talking to him out there, I was like, 'Dude, what are you doing?' He took out driver on a couple holes and he let me back in the game.

“Why don't you take an iron out, make me have to make birdies instead of you hitting it in the trees and opening it up for me? And he's like, 'Yeah, yeah, I know.' "

On this day, it all worked out for Johnson.

But he has to know that there will be other days.

Tagged: Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson

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