HAVEN, Wis.—Dustin Johnson wants you to know that he’s just chilling.
He enters this PGA Championship with plenty of reasons to be frustrated. In fact, he’s almost developed a knack for becoming the center of attention at majors for all the wrong reasons. But Johnson said that despite a tumultuous season, he remains as unfazed as ever.
“I’m just chilling,” Johnson said on Wednesday at his pre-tournament press conference. “Trying to get focused for tomorrow. So, but as far as right now, I’m feeling good.”
This major has married two narratives with Johnson as the protagonist. As you might have heard, the last time the PGA Championship was held at Whistling Straits, Johnson mistakenly grounded his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole, received a two-shot penalty and coughed up a chance to win the tournament. The indelible image: a dumbfounded Johnson standing on the final green with his hands on his hips learning his fate from rules official David Price. That was five years ago, but Johnson’s major failures remain fresh in our minds thanks to his three-putt from 12 feet on the final hole at the U.S. Open just two months ago, which handed a title to Jordan Spieth.
“It’s difficult because of the quality of golfers,” Johnson said. “Pretty much everyone in the field is a fantastic golfer. And so whoever has the best week that week is going to win the tournament. On good, tough golf courses it brings it back to the best players, but it’s always the best player that week is going to win. I mean, it could be anybody.”
It could be anybody, but it has never been Johnson.
Johnson rarely breaks character or adds much inflection to his media-room remarks, but very early in his press conference, he happily acknowledged that the bunker that sealed his fate in 2010 was covered with a grandstand.
“This year I don’t have to worry about it,” Johnson said. “Thank you, PGA! I appreciate that.”
Johnson’s prodigious length is clearly his best attribute, especially this week. Entering the 2010 event, it was widely accepted Whistling Straits would favor long hitters, playing into his hands. But after three practice days this week, the focus has shifted from long drives to accurate drives.
“If I drive it straight, yeah, I’ve got an advantage, but you’ve got to hit the fairways,” Johnson said. “Whether you’re driving it short or you drive it far, you’ve got to be in the fairway because the rough’s brutal and if you get out of the rough into some of these bunkers, you can get some funky lies.”
D.J. wasn’t alone in this assessment.
“The fairways are very narrow here and the rough is thick enough to where it affects these approach shots where you really, really do need to be in the fairway,” said Jordan Spieth on Wednesday afternoon.
Ian Poulter took to Twitter to add: “DO NOT miss fairways by 1 yard, its brutal. Miss it by 5 years [sic] and it fine in the fescue. So long and wide or straight.”
Bomb and gouge might not travel to Wisconsin.
In Johnson’s two best performances earlier this year (runner-up at Northern Trust and a win at Doral), it was on the back of his iron play. He ranked first and second, respectively, in proximity to hole in those two events. Since he’s an inconsistent putter (89th in strokes gained putting and 174th from putts inside 10 feet), Johnson relies on reaching par-5s in two and feasting on two-putt birdies. But he struggles on par 3s—his scoring average ranking swings from 111th on par-3s to sixth on par-5s. To win this week, Johnson can’t have a bad driving day.
But now Johnson has the opportunity to be the center of attention for all the right reasons and to rewrite his major-championship story, with him as the conquering hero instead of the goat.
No matter what happens, when it’s all over Johnson will still be chilling.