Near-misses don’t bother Johnson a bit
Golf’s new symbol of resilience, the heavyweight without a glass jaw, Dustin Johnson keeps taking big punches and getting back up, seemingly unfazed except by the lessons. He played in the final twosome in half of the past six major championships and, in dramatic but varied fashion, came up short each time. Some see growing pains.
At 27, he sees rapid progress without the need for salve.
The blows ran the gamut of health forms, save for the spiritual: emotional lapse at the 2010 US Open, mental error in an ill-defined PGA Championship bunker two months later and physical mistake when blocking a ball out of bounds with an unfamiliar 2-iron at the recent British Open.
The commonality is that Johnson shrugged each off with customary calm, choosing to frame the experiences as important blocks in a building process. His mantra throughout his education in the school of major knocks has been to value the gain of comfort and immediately jettison the negative.
“The more I put myself in this situation, the better (I am), the more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens (under pressure),” said the freakish talent who won four times in his first three PGA Tour seasons.
Johnson followed his co-second at Royal St. George’s with a tie for sixth at the Nordea Masters and a week on an island off Spain with Amanda Caulder, his on-and-off girlfriend since college. He has heated up in summer after an uneven first five months, a mini-slump not unusual for a player who moves into his dream home. In this case, it’s a 7,800-square-foot waterfront spread in Jupiter, Fla., occupied in February and complete with two boats out back.
His regained form, thanks largely to a putting revival, and major brushes make him among the favorites entering the PGA Championship this week at Atlanta Athletic Club. And his latest close call again brings into focus his uncanny ability to purge undesirable results and recover pronto, as if nothing had happened.
His inner circle, to a man, marvels at that quality, saying he forgets about bad shots before balls hit the ground. Those closest to him maintain that non-stick coating is perhaps his best attribute, over the obvious prodigious length and the natural athleticism. The latter allows him to dunk basketballs while wet and barefoot and perform other feats that prompt his trainer to label him the best athlete he has ever seen.
David Winkle, the agent, suggests Johnson was “dipped in Teflon at birth.” Butch Harmon, the coach, likens him to a duck whose back repels water. Joe LaCava, the current caddie, says “one shot doesn’t affect the next.” Bobby Brown, his caddie of three years until April, figures the trio of major hits would have made a lot of other players disappear for a year or two and say “What have I done?” instead of Johnson’s “I’ll be better now that I know what to do.” Allen Terrell, his college coach at Coastal Carolina, says Johnson routinely bounces back because he is non-judgmental to the point of not differentiating good from bad.
Terrell suggests his protégé with the uncluttered mind could write a book about sports psychology, adding, “The worst thing he could do in his life would be to see one.” A sensible working title might be "Don’t Sweat Even the Big Stuff."
“He’s the only player I’ve worked for who would hit a couple of bad shots and laugh at himself,” Brown said. “When he’d do that and say, ‘Come on, DJ,’ I knew things were fine. I’ve never seen him get serious on the golf course. The only time I’ve seen him get mad was at his sheepdog, Max.”
The same things for which Johnson has been criticized — being too laid back and loose and lacking attention to detail, such as with regard to rules and tee sheets — have fueled his rise. That is the double-edged sword with which he will attempt to carve out some history. In the insecure and often mechanical arena of professional golf, he’s a free-wheeling aberration. His simplicity can be boiled down to: See shot, hit shot, forget shot.
When he temporarily lost his cell phone overseas last year and friends fretted, he remained unconcerned. Asked from where the trait of shaking things off derives, Johnson said: “I’ve always been that way. I just don’t let stuff bother me too much. I try to always look forward. You can’t really change what’s happened in the past.”
Yet associates identify his past, specifically the sometimes unstructured teenage years in South Carolina, as the source of his mental toughness. His parents having divorced when he was a teen, Johnson admittedly made some poor choices. He and some friends felt pressure to hang out with a hood eventually convicted of murder. Johnson skipped school, got suspended and played little golf for a couple of years before returning to the game that served as a safe haven.
“He’s a throwback,” Terrell said. “A lot of kids you see coming up are protected from failure. He’s fallen down and had to climb back up.”
Son of a teaching pro and grandson of an college basketball All-American, the kid without much in his wallet played money games against males far older. That translates to today’s fearlessness, which can be seen in Tuesday big-cash matches against four-time major winner Phil Mickelson.
Terrell says he has witnessed Johnson’s poor range sessions turn into 66s, adding: “He doesn’t worry about it. He knows (bad warm-up) has nothing to do with competing.”
LaCava finds it uncommon that the driver and putter are someone’s two most lethal weapons, as in the case of Johnson, an unorthodox swinger with a shut club face at the top. On the flip side, Harmon says his student knows the weaknesses: work ethic, time management, wedge play inside 125 yards and a tendency to sometimes rush pre-shot routine.
The latter was a problem when in unfamiliar territory at last year’s Open at Pebble Beach. Johnson began Sunday with a three-shot lead but lost his poise and made a triple bogey, double bogey and bogey on Nos. 2-4 en route to an 82. At Harmon’s urging, Johnson reviewed the tape and saw for himself the hurried pace.
Two months later, Johnson birdied Nos. 16-17 and took a one-stroke lead to the final hole of the PGA at Whistling Straits. Then all hell and Bunkergate broke loose. He blocked a drive well right onto a sandy surface that he, Brown and countless others didn’t identify as a bunker. It didn’t help, Brown said, that roving CBS reporter David Feherty mentioned near the tee that “we had a perfect lie on hardpan.” The ensuing two-stroke penalty for grounding his club, issued after video review, denied him a spot in a playoff.
The next morning, Johnson and Brown played for $100 back home at TPC Myrtle Beach.
“That tells you how fast he got over it,” Brown said. “We both figured it wasn’t meant to be.”
The next month, Johnson rebounded by winning the BMW Championship near Chicago. He did so despite struggling with his ball-striking and putting in the Wednesday pro-am. Brown walked off 18 telling Winkle, “It’s ugly.” Johnson laughed and, some 30 minutes of practice later, tossed the putter to Brown and pronounced himself back with, “We’re good to go.”
Confidence isn’t a problem. After a round during his 2008 rookie season, the usually understated Johnson told Winkle, “If I drive it like that, no one will beat me.”
Four years later, such sentiment resonates with Harmon.
“This kid is going to put it all together and run off and leave people,” the coach said. “In the next two years, you’ll see this kid blossom into the best player in the world.”
It wouldn’t be the first time a twentysomething rose there from major hardship. At 24, Tom Watson led the 1974 US Open after 54 holes but closed with 79. The next year, Watson led the Open by three midway but blew up with 78-77. A month later, though, he converted at the British Open for the first of his eight major titles.
Watson said Johnson has the talent and now the experience under pressure to break through. Then he gave simple advice.
“Get yourself in position again and do it better next time.”