AKRON, Ohio—A World Golf Championship was at stake here at Firestone Country Club’s stout South Course. Dustin Johnson won this Bridgestone Invitational and probably changed the world order of golf while he was at it.
It’s not just that Johnson shot 66-66 on the weekend and came from behind to snatch another title from Jason Day, the world’s top-ranked player.
It’s not just that Johnson won the U.S. Open at Oakmont, as hard as it gets, with a sterling back nine and two of the best shots you’ll ever see on an 18th hole.
It’s how easy he has made it all look.
Let the numbers fall where they may as the Official World Golf Rankings are revised on a weekly basis. Johnson should move up to No. 2 after this. But really, who would you least like to play right now in a match for your life? It has to be Johnson. Day, who lost the Bridgestone when he went trees-to-trees-to-pond and made double at the par-5 16th hole Sunday, would be second. Spieth is third because of his putting prowess, and then it might be close between Rory McIlroy and Scott Piercy since the latter finished second to Johnson at Oakmont and again here, although Rory’s four major championships give him an edge.
We are only halfway through the 2106 major championship season, and it’s going to finish in a blur later this month with the British Open at Royal Troon and the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, but this is not the 2016 the experts expected. The Year of the Big Three has not materialized. First, Day pulled away from the other two, Spieth and McIlroy, with four wins and a near-miss here. Then, Johnson racked up a flurry of top-five finishes—seven, actually—before taking his game to a new level at Oakmont. Johnson has at least caught Spieth, whose only full-field win this year was at Colonial, and who has been struggling with his swing, and McIlroy, who has had trouble trying to close out wins on the weekend.
You could argue that Johnson has flown by them both in the passing lane. But this is big-picture stuff, not Player of the Month. Still, if you haven’t considered that this may be the start of Dustin Time, that the U.S. Open victory got the pressure of great expectations off his back and freed him up and we’re seeing a golfer finally reach his potential, maybe you should.
Johnson shot eight under on the weekend. That was nine strokes better than Day, six shots better than Spieth. The only golfer close to that was Zach Johnson, who free-wheeled a 69-65 finish after being six over par in the first two rounds. Dustin dusted anybody who was contending on the weekend.
“He won for a reason,” Piercy said of Johnson’s closing kick. “That’s pretty awesome. We all know how good DJ is and he’s shown it. To be nipping at his heels makes me feel good.”
Johnson is from the aw-shucks school of golf although the modern version is more like, yeah, whatever. Nothing seems to faze him or greatly excite him. He gave only a small fist pump and shake when he holed out at Oakmont. His usual move after a key birdie putt, like the one he holed at the 71st hole here, is to just hold up his massive right hand like a five-fingered flag. No biggie, another birdie.
Asked about his 66-66 spurt, Johnson answered, “It was solid. It wasn’t, like, awesome. But it was pretty solid.”
He is a man of few words who doesn’t overthink much. His biggest smile of the day may have come after the round when he held his young son, Tatum, in one arm and had his partner, Paulina Gretzky, on Facetime on his phone with his free hand. “I found him,” he said with a big laugh. She had just asked him moments earlier where their son was and having just finished his round, DJ didn’t know. He had a nanny—although a handler is more like it with a toddler like that—who quickly herded Tatum into Dustin’s arms. Tatum got a lot of camera-time as he sat in a golf cart and played with the steering wheel, in between spells of playing with a golf ball—Rickie Fowler, dressed down in his street sweats as he waited to leave, caught one of his tosses—and running around on the grass.
Paulina returned home Friday morning so Johnson was bachelor dad. A winning bachelor dad. “Just me and him hanging out this weekend,” Johnson said with a green. “It’s perfect.”
That wasn’t difficult?” Well, I’ve got a nanny,” he said, laughing some more.
You can make a case that winning a major may have opened the door for a big career run by Johnson. Or perhaps fatherhood. “Golf isn’t the most important thing anymore, he’s the most important,” Johnson said of his son. “Whether I shoot a good score or a bad score, when I see him, it doesn’t matter.”
The real reason this may not be just a hot streak of golf is the way Johnson plays. Late last year, gave up his traditional right-to-left draw and starting hitting left-to-right fades. As Lee Trevino said years ago, “You can talk to a fade but a hook never listens.”
Phil Mickelson went through a similar transformation when he finally broke through to win his first major at the Masters. His shot was a draw and he was reluctant to try to play a fade, especially under pressure. It was only after he committed to developing a reliable fade that he started piling up majors.
Changing your ball-flight direction is a big deal for a golfer. Your ball flight is part of your soul. Asked if the was suggested by his coach, Butch Harmon, or someone else, Johnson said, “No, that was me. My coaches like it but they don’t care which way I hit it as long as I hit it straight.”
Pressed for more details, he answered, “Well, I was just struggling with the draw to get it in the fairway,” Johnson said. “So I said, I’m going to hit a fade. And I started hitting a fade.”
It shouldn’t be that simple. It is for Johnson. Fades are more controllable and they land a little softer than draws. That effectively makes any fairway wider for Johnson and the whole game at Oakmont and Firestone was hitting the fairway. If you missed fairways, you lost the hole before you began.
Johnson hitting fairways should be scary. He averaged 341.1 yards off the tee at Firestone last week on the two distance measuring holes and 315.3 on all the holes. He’s as long as anyone in the game, probably longer. And now he’s straighter? Johnson ranked fourth in fairways hit this week.
He credits improved putting and wedge play for his surge, too. He’s worked hard on his wedges and feels like he’s hitting them closer than before. He made 353 feet of putts in four rounds, which probably doesn’t tell you much. He ranked eighth in strokes gained putting in the field and fifth in putts per green in regulation.
If the new-and-improved, left-to-right, fairway-hitting Johnson is going to play like this, the world order is definitely about to change.
When he got up from his winner’s press conference seat, someone joked about the length of his interview, since brevity is his style.
“I’m getting better,” he said, smiling, “I think.”
He is, and not just at talking.