Tour Confidential: Is the New Dustin Johnson the Next Big Thing?

Tour Confidential: Is the New Dustin Johnson the Next Big Thing?


Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. J.B. Holmes faltered early at Doral, opening the door for Dustin Johnson to earn his first PGA Tour victory since the WGC-HSBC Champions in 2013. The win comes about seven months after DJ’s leave of absence, which reported was for a third failed drug test. With a new baby at home and a support system that includes future father-in-law Wayne Gretzky, is DJ ready to fulfill his potential and become America’s best young player?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: For golf talent, I don’t think there is a better player. But I’d rather be Jordan Spieth.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): Patrick Reed. Rickie Fowler. Harris English and on. We’ve anointed so many young players as the next American alpha that I’ve lost track. But Johnson has belonged in that conversation for a long time, and three top fives in the last five tournaments suggests that something is going very right. There’s no reason he can’t be the next “it” guy. But there’s also no reason it can’t all be snatched away from him in an eye-blink. Golf, and life, are like that.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): I don’t know if he’s ready, but the sign of a great player is a guy who can win a big event despite not playing his best. DJ was solid at the finish, Bubba and Holmes weren’t, and that was the difference. This could be the start of something big … maybe.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: (@CameronMorfit): The fact that he won without really putting very well speaks to his potential. And I was encouraged to see that Dustin was much more articulate in his comments to the media, which in his case may come from making more of an effort. He’s always been the most gifted American player of his generation, but now that he’s making better decisions on and off the course, he could be dangerous in the majors, where every decision can have huge consequences. 

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Thing is, DJ has been one of America’s best young players for several years now. He’s good for about one win a season, which is more than most pros can say. We just underrate him because of a couple of meltdowns in majors and extended absences/reported drug suspensions. It’s possible that parenthood and some stability off the course will help focus him and bring out his best. If so, look out — he may finally have that monster season.

Joe Passov, Senior Editor, Golf Magazine (@JoePassov): I’m not sure it’s accurate to call 30-year-old DJ “young” anymore, but it seems a certainty that he’s finally going to fulfill his limitless potential. Well before his six-month timeout, I tabbed him as the biggest underachiever on Tour — even with his eight wins — simply because his athleticism and shotmaking prowess were so phenomenal that I couldn’t understand how he didn’t win at least three times every year. He’s no mere gorilla, either. He’s triumphed at classic ballstrikers’ courses such as Pebble Beach and Plainfield, in the wind at Kapalua and across the world in China. The way he’s performed since his return, he could challenge Rory for No. 1.

Coleman McDowell, assistant editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@ColemanMcDowell): Who’s to say he isn’t already? Only Tiger (18) and Phil (10) have more PGA Tour wins since 2008 than DJ’s nine.

2. Many golf fans responded to Rory McIlroy’s club throw with a lads-will-be-lads shrug of the shoulders. How would the response have been different if Tiger threw an iron into the water after a bad shot?

RITTER: Tiger has a longer history of on-course bratty behavior (swearing, spitting, club-tossing) and no doubt the response would’ve been different if Woods had chucked that 3-iron. After his Doral tantrum, McIlroy demonstrated a quality Tiger lacks that serves him extremely well: the ability to admit a mistake and laugh at himself. After pumping two more into the pond Sunday, McIlroy gave a little pump-fake but didn’t toss the club, further demonstrating his self-awareness. Fans respond well to that.

MORFIT: There’s little doubt Tiger would have gotten lambasted, but here’s the difference: Rory has built up a reservoir of goodwill with the public and the press, which is why he can get away with helicoptering his club into said reservoir. Tiger’s reservoir runneth dry.

PASSOV: We’ve already excoriated Tiger many times for his spitting, his f-bombs and club slams. However, let’s not single out Tiger. We take issue with nearly everybody who misbehaves, from Bubba’s tantrum directed at his caddie, to Sergio’s petulant shoe and club tosses to John Daly hurling his driver over a fence at the 1997 PGA and hockeying putts at the 1999 U.S. Open. With Rory, however, there’s a clear double standard. He’s so nice, so refreshingly forthright in interviews, we forget he has a frustration level/temper just like the rest of us.

VAN SICKLE: Tiger wouldn’t have gotten a free pass like Rory did. Why? Because Tiger has filled the airways with F-bombs, he wouldn’t have owned up to his mistake and laughed it off the way Rory did, Trump wouldn’t have dared to present him with his retrieved 3-iron as a joke and, oh yeah, Rory is universally liked by the media because he’s been a nice guy since Day 1, unlike Tiger. This is why press relations can matter.

MCDOWELL: There would be outrage, scalding-hot takes and columns that began “Tiger’s 3-iron wasn’t the only thing that drowned today; so did his legacy and sportsmanship,” etc.

SENS: The pundits and the public are more inclined to give Rory a pass on something like this, but that’s largely because Rory has built up a wellspring of goodwill by showing a human face to those who follow and cover the game. Pretty much the opposite applies to Tiger, who would have received a harsher public thrashing for the same misdeed.

BAMBERGER: He would have been — let me reach for something understated here — crucified.


3. Many tee shots on the Blue Monster’s par-4 18th hole at the WGC-Cadillac Championships ended up sleeping with the fishes. Not counting Augusta National, what’s the toughest tee shot on the PGA Tour?

VAN SICKLE: The 18th at Doral is it. Whiff it at all and you’re short, in the water. Pull it left at all, you’re in the water. Push it right, you’re in the palms with a chance to drop your second shot in the water. There’s no layup off the tee. You’ve got to bust a good one just to have any hope of a par. The 18th at Quail Hollow is no picnic, either, nor is the 18th at Sawgrass, but Doral’s 18th is the scariest of them all.

PASSOV: TPC Sawgrass’ par-4 18th that boomerangs left around a lake and Quail Hollow’s creek-menaced par-4 18th are every bit as scary, but the Blue Monster’s 18th at Trump Doral earns my vote as toughest tee shot on the PGA Tour. As DJ, J.B. and Bubba proved in the final round, it’s not impossible, but we also saw an endless parade of water-bound pulls and nervous pushes that found the rough, bunkers, palms, cart path and even the first hole.

MORFIT: The hardest shot on Tour has to be the tee shot on 18 at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. With the wind blowing hard that fairway looks more like a crescent-shaped footpath around the circumference of the lake.

RITTER: Doral’s closer is a contender, but I’ll go with 17 at Sawgrass. Pros spend 16 holes dreading that little shot, and there’s nothing else quite like it on Tour.

SENS: If you combine the context (our fifth major) with the demands of the shot, I’ll take the drive on the 18th at TPC Sawgrass. Left is dead. Right is only barely breathing. Try that one with The Players on the line.

MCDOWELL: It appears to be any tee shot on the back nine with the tournament on the line. Bubba had a costly bogey at No. 14 on Sunday after a badly missed fairway. At the Honda, Padraig Harrington plunked his tee shot in the water on No. 17 only to watch Daniel Berger do the same thing in a playoff to give him the victory. Not to mention Ian Poulter’s meltdown. And at Riviera, Sergio hit some horrific drives on No. 17 and 18 to give the tournament away.

BAMBERGER: Because I was standing on 18 at Doral on Sunday, and there’s lots that can go wrong there, even with a good shot, I’m going with that. But after Bay Hill or TPC, I might have a different answer.

4. One year after its redesign, the setup at Trump National Doral’s Blue Monster was called into question. Did the course disproportionately favor the game’s longest hitters? Was it too easy in Round 1, as Trump stated, after J.B. Holmes’ 62? Was it too hard overall, or is this a proper test for the game’s best?

MORFIT: The course certainly wasn’t too easy in Round 1, when Holmes beat the field average by 11.5 strokes. He just had one of those days like the bishop had in Caddyshack (before he was struck by lightning). As for whether it disproportionately favored the longest hitters, of course it did — especially the 18th hole. Shorter to medium-length hitters have been complaining about that hole for years, since well before the redesign.

BAMBERGER: No — that 62 was freakish. The course got more difficult over the four days. That’s expert management by people who know what they are doing.

SENS: I don’t think a single tournament, much less a single round, is enough of a test sample to say one way or another. I think a deeper truth is that the modern game itself favors the longest hitters. Look at the World Golf Rankings. Look at the winners of last year’s majors. Is there ever a disadvantage to bombing the ball?

MCDOWELL: Billy Horschel tweeted the course was perfect for those who fly it 310 off the tee and can carry all the trouble. DJ, J.B. and Bubba obviously all can. Regarding the setup, Holmes was one of only seven players to break 70 on Thursday, and his 62 was the low round of the tournament by three strokes. One outlier doesn’t mean the setup was easy. The 10-under was a phenomenal round.

PASSOV: The setup at Trump National’s Blue Monster was perfect. Personally, I’m tired of all these water balls the past two weeks at PGA National and Doral, as it removes the fun of watching recovery shots, but the task for Trump and architect Gil Hanse was to restore the bite to the Blue Monster, and that’s what they did. Yes, the course favored long hitters, but it always has, even before the redesign. And these long hitters happen to be some of the world’s best players, no matter where they tee it up. Great courses should always yield the occasional low number to outstanding play. Credit Sergio Garcia. After Round 1, he gushed over Holmes’ 10-under 62, yet predicted the winning under-par 72-hole total would be in single digits. DJ’s four-round total? 279, -9.

VAN SICKLE: Doral has always been a big hitter’s course and it is now, more than ever. The course didn’t play easy. Only one player was within five shots of Holmes when he shot 62. Johnny Miller called it one of the best rounds on Tour in the last 20 years, and he may have understated it. That was a career round by Holmes. Doral is extreme, maybe too much, but when you have players routinely hitting it 325, 340 and more, it has to be long to make it challenging for the top players. That’s not Trump’s fault, that’s the USGA’s fault for not reeling in equipment advances.


5. The top three ranked women in the world, Lydia Ko, Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis finished 2-1-3 in Singapore this week. Why don’t we see that happen on the men’s tour more often?

MORFIT: I think we might see it happen more often as we get further into the meat of the season, when the top guys are playing week in, week out. It’s becoming quite clear who the best young players are on the men’s side, just as it’s clear who the best are on the LPGA. The PGA Tour is deeper, talent wise, but I expect to be seeing a whole lot of Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and, eventually, Brooks Koepka.

VAN SICKLE: Well, the women have barely more than half as many tournaments as the PGA Tour, so the top players play the same events a lot more often. Also, there is a lot less depth at the top in women’s golf than in men’s golf. After the top two or three LPGA players, there’s a dropoff. Players ranked from 3 to 20 on the PGA Tour are nearly interchangeable in talent level, a much thinner gap.

MCDOWELL: The fourth-ranked player in the world (Shanshan Feng) was tied for fourth too! The last three winners in 2015 on the LPGA Tour were ranked 1, 16 and 2. The last three on the PGA Tour were ranked 297, 297 and 16. The top-tier of the LPGA appears more dominant than the PGA’s.

PASSOV: There’s just so much depth on the men’s tour, it’s surprisingly rare when the three top horses complete the trifecta. Even in the 1960s, there were only two occasions where golf’s Big 3, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, finished in the top three at the same event, the 1963 Phoenix Open and the 1964 Whitemarsh Open in Philadelphia. Generally, there’s a true top 3 or top 5 in the women’s game, whereas on the PGA Tour, any one of 10 or 15 guys can make a legitimate case that they’re top 3 talent — or top 5, in the case of Patrick Reed.

SENS: A deeper, wider talent pool means less separation between the best and the rest.

BAMBERGER: Because they play for too much money.

6. Adam Scott ditched his long putter this week at Doral in favor of a traditional flatstick and finished T4. How will the anchored-putting ban affect Scott’s career?

MORFIT: People have made too big a deal out of the anchored-putting rules change. I think some guys will actually start to putt better having ditched the anchored stroke, and of course others will putt worse. Most, I’d venture to say, will respond to the change like any other golfer: They’ll putt both better and worse, depending on the day.

VAN SICKLE: Scott said he was happy with his putting, although I saw a few not-so-good strokes on misses. He’s using a version of the claw, which has a short learning curve and is pretty effective. Like Sergio, he may need a full season to get to where he needs to be. Scott is off to a promising start, with some reservations.

MCDOWELL: It’s not like he was setting the world on fire with a standard putter. Starting in 2005, these are his strokes gained putting ranks: 101st, 133rd, 73rd, 179th, 180th, 186th, 143rd, 146th (started using belly putter), 103rd and 55th. All while finishing in the top-10 in strokes gained tee to green eight out of 10 times. When he’s won, it’s been in spite of his putting, so I assume he will continue to do so.

RITTER: Scott was a statistically poor putter with the short stick before making the switch, so he’s an interesting case to follow. Smart of him to start transitioning early.

BAMBERGER: I think he’ll do fine with the short putter, and in windy conditions I think he’ll do better. Plus, he looks more like a golfer with it.

PASSOV: Scott had a very respectable career prior to his switch to the long/anchored putter, though certainly he raised it many notches by using the broomstick. Yet, so much of putting is confidence. His personal life is settled, he’s a happy dad now and he got the major monkey off his back in 2013. He looked just fine with the short stick at Doral. Time will tell, but his career prospects appear very bright.

SENS: He will look a lot less dorky around the greens.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.