SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Dustin Johnson couldn’t find me.
This was Wednesday, at Johnson’s press conference for the 98th PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, and I’d volunteered to ask the first question—just as soon as I could get the interview subject to look my way.
“Dustin, over here,” I said. “To your left.”
Johnson, the hottest player in golf after posting six consecutive top-10 finishes—five of those top-5s, two of them wins—kept looking out into the audience to his right, smiling from under his white, flat-brim hat. He finally swiveled his head left and we made eye contact, so I raised the microphone and asked him how often he could use the driver on this par 70, and what he thought of ending each round with back-to-back par 5s.
“This golf course, I hit a lot of drivers,” he said. “It’s par 70, but it’s quite long.” And he couldn’t recall playing a course with consecutive par 5s, but he likes this one, he is excited to go, he is ready, he is playing well.
And so on.
It was an unremarkable presser, as usual with Johnson, the fault lying perhaps with unremarkable questions like mine. And it was lightly attended relative to the stature of the player in the spotlights. The takeaway, as usual, was not that D.J. couldn’t find us but that we couldn’t find him.
Desperate and reaching, reporters kept asking what angers Johnson, what might provoke the ultimate “bro” pro out of his happy coma. (His “bro”-ma, if you will.) “Once you push me over the edge I can get really upset,” he said. “But it takes a lot to get me there. You won’t get me there.”
Of course no one wanted to get him there; we wanted to find a pulse.
Who is this guy who could take over Jason Day’s top spot in the World Ranking this week? The fallback has become that Dustin and his brother/caddie Austin are simpletons who don’t do much on-course math or otherwise over-complicate things. One story, perhaps apocryphal, has Dustin convincing Austin that the body of water next to Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits is not Lake Michigan but “Lake Canada.” True? Not true? That characterization is itself so simple it’s hard to know how much to trust it.
On Wednesday, Dustin was asked why he shaved his beard; he replied that he’d taken a razor to his jaws after finishing T9 at the British Open. He was asked if he wants a second major title as much as he wants the first. (Yes, and maybe more.) He was asked about the prospect of reaching No. 1, and said, “I just go out and play golf and try to shoot the best score I can.”
All in all he was a whole lot less fun than 88th-ranked Andrew “Beef” Johnston, he of the similar surname, clumpy beard and Arby’s endorsement.
Here is what we can say for sure about Dustin Johnson: He is the answer to the age-old question of whether golf is a game or a sport.
It’s a sport, obviously, and the reason why Johnson could go to No. 1 this week is largely because of his athleticism. (Johnson would assume the top spot if he finishes second alone and Day finishes lower than 28th alone, or if he wins and Day finishes lower than T2 with one other player.) At a limber 6 feet, 4 inches, he can do with a golf ball what no one else can, and he leads the Tour in driving distance with a 313.8-yard average off the tee.
That length will come in handy at Baltusrol, where the par-3s stretch in excess of 200 yards, two front-nine par-4s play as par-5s for the members, and the par-5 17th hole can be stretched to 650 yards. With the juicy rough accuracy will count, too, and Johnson has had plenty of both lately, as when he tied for second at the RBC Canadian Open last weekend.
His big weapon, though, and perhaps the main reason why he won last month’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, why he has earned over $7.2 million this year, and why he tops the FedEx Cup standings, is his wedge play. Asked about it, Johnson gave a highly nuanced, obtusely scientific explanation.
Okay, not really.
“I’ve actually practiced my wedge game this year for the first time,” he said, “probably since I’ve been on Tour. I actually worked on it.”
For Johnson, golf is a three-step process: Hit the ball, find it, and hit it again. Practicing eliminates step two, and, uh, apparently it works. It’s a simple game, bro, and if you don’t like it you can go jump in Lake Canada.