The Tour’s Florida swing is chock full of branding, from the Bear Trap (Honda Classic) to the Blue Monster (last week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship) to the Snake Pit (this week’s Valspar Championship).
At Trump National Doral on Sunday the marketing hook was more like America’s Got Talent, a casting call for our best young player, with a guy we’ve had our eye on for years turning in the best audition. Dustin Johnson, in his fifth start back since serving what Golf.com reported was a six-month Tour suspension for a failed drug test, shot a three-under 69 to beat J.B. Holmes (75) by one and Bubba Watson (71) by two.
“I’ve been working hard on my game and been working hard on me,” said Johnson, who never three-putted at Doral and led the field in driving distance and greens in regulation. “And so it means a great deal to have some success right out of the gate. It gives me a lot of confidence too.”
Attention now turns to how Johnson, 30, will fare at the Masters, where he missed the cut last year and was a career-best 13th in 2013. Is he ready to be the guy who almost won two majors in his 20s, and do that guy one better?
The knock on Johnson is that he has always come off as a bit of a flake. He lost the 2010 U.S. Open (final-round 82 at Pebble Beach) and the PGA Championship (mistaking a bunker for a waste area at Whistling Straits) in a span of nine weeks. He was docked two shots and nearly DQ’d for arriving late for his tee time at Riviera in 2011.
Tall for a golfer (6’4”), Johnson wears an extra large glove and a size 13 shoe. He can palm a basketball with either hand, requires just a step to dunk, and is about the same size as his maternal grandfather, Art Whisnant, who played hoops at South Carolina and is in the school’s Hall of Fame. “He got lazy af
ter he got drafted [by the Los Angles Lakers],” Johnson once told me, “and something happened to his foot.” The lazy tag has dogged Johnson too, even though he needed just 36 starts to win his first two Tour events. He says he partied too much, which meant either vodka (Johnson, in a January story in SI) or a third failed drug test (Golf.com). The Tour says it didn’t suspend Johnson, and on Sunday he again denied he ever flunked a drug test. He declined to elaborate, he said, “because it’s personal, and frankly, I just—it’s not really anybody’s business.”
In any event he seemed to take more time with his answers to the media, a positive development for a guy whose body language once fairly screamed, “Can I go now?” Johnson says he worked with a life coach to break bad habits. He got back in the weight room every morning, dropping 12 pounds. He chilled out with his pregnant fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, until she delivered their first child, son Tatum, in late January. He played golf with his future father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, and even shot a course-record 61 at Sherwood Country Club last fall.
Johnson’s resurrection made the Cadillac a comeback story start to finish, but the story at the finish was not the one we got at the start. Holmes, coming back from two brain surgeries, a Rollerblading wreck and tennis elbow, shot a 10-under 62 in blustery conditions in the first round. The early leader for round of the year, his 62 was four strokes better than the next best score (Ryan Moore, who faded to finish T-9) and beat the field average by 111⁄2 strokes. Tweeted Luke Donald, “What planet were you on today!!”
But Johnson, who opened with a 68, methodically chipped away. Minutes apart on Saturday, he and Holmes aced the par-3 4th hole; Johnson came within inches of doing it again on Sunday. Meanwhile, No. 1 Rory McIlroy never broke 70 and finished T-9 despite rinsing five balls for the week. He vented his frustration with a much-replayed fling of his 3-iron into a pond on Friday; never one to miss an opportunity, Donald Trump had it retrieved and returned it to McIlroy. (“Florida—even our scuba divers are on your side!”)
The Cadillac featured not just the top 50 players in the world but also foul weather, especially on Saturday. Johnson 2.0 never made worse than bogey. In five starts in 2015, he has missed the cut (Farmers), finished T-4 (AT&T Pebble Beach), lost a playoff (Northern Trust), missed the cut (Honda) and now won again to move to seventh in the world.
You can still see traces of the old Johnson. “I just wasn’t mentally into it,” he said on Sunday of the 77–75 he posted at the Honda. There’s no crime in that, but Johnson’s flaky rep is such that he ought to just repeat after Tiger (“I tried on every shot”) and save such candor for more important questions. Give him time.
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