Game, set, match? The U.S. Open is not over, but with Dustin Johnson peaking, it might as well be

Game, set, match? The U.S. Open is not over, but with Dustin Johnson peaking, it might as well be

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The 118th U.S. Open is not over, but it might as well be. The best player in the world is playing his best golf, on the toughest test imaginable. No one is going to beat Dustin Johnson. Not here, not this week. Now, he may yet find a way to lose this thing, but it’ll be a self-inflicted wound, because there is no golfer on earth with the game and temperament to go shot-for-shot with Johnson. Not when he’s playing like this. Not on a monster like Shinnecock Hills.

Destiny is calling, and Johnson is ready to answer. By conquering mighty Oakmont at the 2016 U.S. Open, he elevated himself from an ultra-talented tease to a force to be reckoned with. Triumphing at fearsome Shinnecock will stamp him as a player for the ages. Johnson, 33, already has 18 PGA Tour victories, on marquee courses like Pebble Beach (twice), Riviera, Kapalua (twice), Firestone, Crooked Stick, Plainfield, Doral, Cog Hill, Austin CC and Glen Oaks. Of the more than two dozen players in history with at least that many wins, every single one is in the Hall of Fame except for Tiger Woods, who will be inducted at 12:01 a.m. on the day of his 50th birthday. Since World War I, only 18 players have won multiple U.S. Opens, and they are the giants of the game: Woods, Nicklaus, Jones, Hogan, Hagen, Sarazen, Trevino. Johnson has always had the game to be part of the pantheon. Now is the time to seize the moment.

Of course, Johnson doesn’t talk like that. He may not even think like that. DJ is a down-home Southern boy who likes cold beer, fast boats, and beautiful women. Yet his overwhelming physical prowess set him on a course to greatness. It took a long time for him to honor these gifts, but now his life is dedicated to achieving this unlimited potential. A doting father of two, Johnson kills himself in the gym, adheres to a strict no-fun diet and has embraced a disciplined practice routine that keeps his game razor sharp. His peers speak of him with an awe not heard since turn-of-the-century Tiger.

Says James Hahn, “You know the feeling when you’re an average golfer and you’re playing with a guy who’s on pace to break the course record and he hasn’t missed a shot and every part of his game is on fire and you don’t know whether or not to talk to him or just get out of his way? That’s what it feels like for any of us to play with Dustin right now. Every drive is hammered, every iron shot is dead at the flag, every putt looks like it’s going in. He looks like he’s going to shoot the course record every time he tees it up. And not only does his golf look different, it sounds different. The irons are so crisp. Off the driver head it sounds like gunfire. You only hear that once every decade or two. Tiger Woods when he was in his prime hit the ball like that. Rory has some of that. With Dustin it’s every swing. He’s a machine.”

During the second round he bloodlessly took apart a course that has bedeviled every other player in the field. Johnson made four birdies against a lone bogey, hitting 12 of 14 fairways. He made deuces on the scariest holes at Shinnecock, the fraught par-3s, numbers 7 and 11. On the former, he trickled in a curling 45-footer that was so pure Johnson actually cracked a smile. “Every putt looked like it was going to go in,” said Woods, Johnson’s playing partner over the first two rounds who got dusted by a dozen strokes. “Dustin was in complete control of what he’s doing. He’s hitting the ball so flush and solid. I know it’s windy, it’s blustery, it was raining early, but he’s hitting right through it.”

For so long Johnson was snakebit at the majors, but now even the golf gods are smiling upon him. The break he got during the first round — with TV commentator Rich Beem stepping on his putatively lost ball in the thick fescue on the 6th hole, leading to a free drop and much easier shot — has already entered major championship lore, alongside the Ernie Els/Trey Holland drop at Oakmont, Fred Couples’s ball Velcro-ing to the bank above Rae’s Creek, and Arnold Palmer’s semi-skulled chip clanging off the flagstick and dropping into the hole instead of skittering into a pond at Augusta.

“Sometimes you need little breaks like that to win a golf tournament,” Beem said on Friday afternoon. As soon as he found Johnson’s ball he flashed back to a Euro tour event in Sicily in 2012, when Beem was paired with Thorbjorn Olesen. On the 5th hole of the first round, Olesen slashed a ball into the hay and a search commenced with help from the gallery. Beem’s daughter Bailey, then 5, suddenly was holding it in her hand. Olesen went on to win the tournament. “I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it,” Beem says. “Dustin thanked me for the help, just like over the years Thorbjorn has said thank you to me and my daughter many, many times.”

Pause.

“Of course, knowing Thorbjorn,” Beem says, “when she turns 18 he’ll probably ask her out.”

Johnson once had a similar wild side. Now he’s settled into a quiet domesticity with fiancee Paulina Gretzky. There are car seats in the back of his murdered-out Range Rover, which glides on 22″ rims. He and Paulina are putting the finishing touches on a new mansion in Jupiter, Fla., that they’ve built from scratch. (How many square feet is it? “I don’t know,” Johnson says. “A lot.”) Life couldn’t be better for Johnson. All that’s left now is to win more major championships and become the player he was always supposed to be.

No one knows Johnson better than his trainer Joey Diovisalvi, who spends six days a week with Johnson pumping iron, riding road bikes, swimming and, when they’re at home, stand-up paddle-boarding on the Intercoastal Waterway, next to which Johnson’s house sits. Joey D believes a second U.S. Open victory is merely the beginning.

“This guy is a superhero,” Diovisalvi says. “He is programmed for destruction. Too much is never enough for him. He doesn’t want to just win, he wants to dominate. He doesn’t want to just be number one, he wants to be number one by so much no one can ever catch him. He’s never going to stop. He’s going to keep coming. And coming. And coming. As good as Dustin is playing now, this is just the beginning. He’s going to do things in this game that makes your head spin.”

He already is.


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