Dustin Johnson Has All the Tools. What’s Holding Him Back?

June 3, 2015

Did you see Dustin Johnson in action last week in Dallas? 

The moving-day 62 that got him into the last group for Sunday? The final punctuation to that Saturday round was pure DJ: the massive baby-draw driver off the tee, the spinning wedge for his second shot, the nothing-but-net birdie putt from maybe nine feet to end the day.

Even as a world top-10 player, he remains all potential. Johnson is still looking for his first major. If he wins this week at the Memorial, it will be his 10th Tour win and his most significant title. He once talked about how nervous he was, the first time he met Big Jack, this week’s host. Good for him.

Johnson has enough game to make golf history. That’s how good he is. But for now, at age 30, something is holding him back. It’s not his length, and you know it’s not his short game.

Like John Daly in his moments of sporadic greatness, Johnson is a big man with a soft touch. I can’t think of another big-man golfer whose hands looked more at home on a putter. Not George Archer in the ’60s and ’70s, not Tom Weiskopf in the ’70s and ’80s, not Nick Faldo in the ’80s and ’90s, not Bubba Watson in this century. With the Memorial looming and the rush of summer’s three majors soon after, the door is wide open for Johnson. More open for him, really, than for anybody else, because he has more physical tools than pretty much any other golfer in the game today, including Rory McIlroy. As Tiger Woods has said more than once, Johnson has another speed in reserve that few others do. You can tell: Johnson reminds Woods of the golfer he once was.

Yes, Johnson will shoot himself in the foot now and again. There was the final-round 82 at the 2010 U.S. Open and the penalty later that summer on the 72nd hole at the PGA, which cost him a spot in the playoff. He did it again on Sunday, at the Byron Nelson, when he took eight shots on the mundane par-4 6th, a hole that took him out of contention. Shades of Daly, right there. But would you be surprised at all to see him win the Memorial this week? Of course not. You can make a case for Sergio Garcia if you like, but many would say Dustin Johnson is the best player without a major.

Ah, the majors. Here comes the chase for three of the game’s most coveted crowns, in the span of two months. What an opportunity for Johnson. He’s healthy, he’s playing well, he’s 30, he’s a father, he’s financially secure. He seems to be in a good place.

But I wonder if Johnson really wants the future others envision for him. I wonder if he wants the scrutiny that comes with modern greatness. Since his return to the Tour in February, after a six-month absence for what he has called dealing with personal problems, Johnson has shown extreme discomfort when his off-course life is examined at all. (Golf.com reported the hiatus was the result of a Tour-issued suspension for a failed drug test.) He seems painfully aware of the fundamental conflict of the modern Tour.

Professional golf has always been about the chase for money and titles. Now it is money, titles and image. If you go on the PGA Tour’s website and click on Dustin’s neatly bearded face, you may watch, among many other things, an interview with him about that recent round of 62. But only after watching a quick spot for Netflix. That’s how the system works. Dustin goes low; Netflix sells House of Cards to any of us in the jet stream of Tour highlights.

The Memorial is followed much more intensely than the Cadillac Championship, which Johnson won in March. The U.S. Open is followed much more intensely than the Memorial. Winning golf’s biggest events is really an invitation to the world to come on in. There’s reason to think Johnson doesn’t want any part of that. I hope that’s not the case.

Right now, Johnson is in a place where he can shoot 62, sell a boatload of drivers for TaylorMade and make everybody happy. A win at the Memorial is one thing. A win at the U.S. Open is something else. The Memorial has the stamp of golf’s greatest golfer. The four majors don’t exist to sell Viagra and Cadillacs. They exist for one main purpose, to identify golfing greatness. Win one of those, and everybody — everybody — is looking at you. Not every player wants that. Not every player can handle that. About Dustin Johnson, we do not yet know.

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