Dustin Johnson is a lanky, slow-talking country boy in shirts too small for him, who has lived large for most of his 30 years and has an appeal that is rooted in his gift for simplicity. Tiger turned golf into rocket science. Johnson, bless his nonchalant soul, is theory-free. It’s a powerful package, one that has taken him far already. His victory at last week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami was his most impressive yet, for the deep calm he displayed. It makes you wonder: Where can this guy go?
On Sunday at the Trump National Doral resort, a golfing oasis located between the Everglades and Miami International, Johnson was trying to win for the first time since becoming a father. He was trying to win for the first time after a recent six-month absence from the PGA Tour for what Golf.com reported was a third failed drug test. He was trying to establish himself as the best American golfer not named Patrick Reed. (Or Jordan Spieth, if you like.) And he was trying to win a $1.6 million first-place check.
If these stakes troubled Johnson in any way, you could not tell. He strolled Doral’s emerald fairways with an ambling, shoulder-rolling jock’s walk. On the 293-yard, par-4 16th hole, he hit a 3-wood over the green. He then played a delicate downhill pitch -- with the tournament on the line and a pond awaiting a thinned shot -- after about 10 seconds of consideration. “I never take much time,” Johnson said afterward. “You’re either going to hit it good or hit it bad.”
Somewhere Sam Snead is smiling. John Daly too. For all his greatness, Tiger Woods never made golf look easy. Johnson -- in the tradition of Snead and Daly -- does.
Johnson won his ninth Tour event playing in Sunday’s last twosome, paired with J.B. Holmes, who began the day with a five-shot lead. Woods, who did not qualify for the World Golf Championship event, has 79 Tour wins, 14 of them majors. Maybe golf didn’t look too effortless when Woods was in his prime, but style points mean nothing on a scorecard.
The question is not whether Johnson can contend in majors. He already has, memorably, at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, at the ’10 PGA at Whistling Straits and at the ’11 British Open at Royal St. George’s. On those Sundays he played some bone-headed golf. The question is whether Johnson can play Sunday golf at a major as he did last week at Doral, when he shot a three-under 69 on a wind-blown course teeming with water hazards. No one else in the last 10 groups shot better than 71. At the Doral finale, with his kid brother, Austin, on the bag, Johnson used his full tool kit.
Tee to green, Augusta National is perfect for him. Holmes pulverizes his tee shots. Johnson, without even using what Woods has called Johnson’s “extra gear,” was often 20 or more yards past him. Johnson also has more sawed-off approach finesse shots than anybody playing today, including Rory McIlroy, who tied for ninth at Doral. If he can reach three or four of Augusta’s par-5s in two per round, Johnson can slip into a green jacket without even getting hot with the putter.
On Sunday night, Johnson described McIlroy as his across-the-river neighbor in South Florida, and as a friend. But he also said he welcomed the chance to face him on any given Sunday. “Rory is a really good player, he’s won a couple majors now,” Johnson said. (Four, if you’re keeping track at home.) “But I think I can play with him. I’m not afraid of him, that’s for sure.” Them’s fightin’ words!
Or they would be, except that Johnson is built for love, not war. If he has an aggressive gene, it’s not evident in his public life. “Dustin’s always been a good boy,” his maternal grandfather, Art Whisnant, a Hall of Fame basketball player at South Carolina, said at Doral on Sunday night. “He can’t say no to nobody or nothing.”
Week in and week out the Tour sells a dream -- the good life. The best restaurants, hotels, golf courses. The Tour’s annual stop at Doral has carried that message powerfully for decades, and that was before Donald Trump arrived on the scene. Trump was on the property all week and on Sunday night, posing for photos with Johnson on the 18th green, swaddled in his freebie Tourwear. Behind them a Cadillac was floating on a man-made pond. At the awards presentation, a gent from Cadillac with a microphone in his hand called Johnson “a great man.” DJ won a golf tournament.
It’s easy to forget about the long journey any player -- this week, Dustin Johnson -- takes to get to the awards presentation. Forty yards from the winner, in the shadows of a grandstand, were Johnson’s father, stepmother and grandfather, in their jeans and sneakers, looking on proudly and quietly, remembering concrete-driveway basketball games and long-drive contests with striped balls. They’re nice people.
Dustin’s father, Scott, a former club pro who was standing with his hands in his pockets, was asked what Dustin’s six-month absence from the Tour did for his son. “Helped him here,” he said, tapping his graying right temple.
“Is golf more important or less important to him now?” he was asked.
“That’s a hard one,” he replied. Scott put the question to Austin.
“He takes life a little more precious now,” DJ’s brother said. “Not that he didn’t before, but more now.” Austin attributed that change to fatherhood.
The messy parts of a golfer’s off-course life are inconvenient for anybody in the business of selling the Tour’s version of la dolce vita. On Sunday, Johnson said again he has never failed a Tour drug test, though a source with access to classified Tour documents told Golf.com otherwise last year. Johnson has not offered any Oprah-style tell-all explanations of his two lengthy absences from the Tour, one for 11 weeks in 2012, the other the recent six-month departure that caused him to miss last year’s PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, among other events.
Maybe nobody cares. Maybe that’s the point of Johnson’s impressive win at Doral. You know, if you can smash it 320 in a crosswind, hit old-school punch shots all day long, stiff (and hole-out!) tee shots and approach shots and putts from downtown, then come in and kiss your girlfriend (Paulina Gretzky) and your seven-week-old son (Tatum) and collect 1.6 large, well, maybe nobody cares about your murky absences. You won a golf tournament. Of course, in golf even the best don’t win that often. Golf is all about the journey. It’s not, “Just win, baby.” It’s onward, baby. Onward and upward, and leave the past where it belongs.