SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — What you got to love about this D.J. Johnson is that he’s a jock. He does not care. Or not excessively, anyhow. His South Florida workout buddy won the U.S. Open, right in front of him. Do you think DJ was, like, moved? Oh, please. Johnson just about walked off the 18th green without shaking Brooks Koepka’s hand before remembering the be-nice code of the modern PGA Tour. Rickie-Justin-Jordan complicating his life again. Johnson is more out of the Leonard Thompson mode, if that means anything to you. All Leonard Thompson wanted you to do was tap-in or mark your ball the right way.
When Johnson made a cosmetic birdie on the last to finish at three over—a shot behind Tommy Fleetwood and two behind Koepka—he raised his right hand almost to shoulder height with the hint of a smirk. Too little, too late. He climbed the sandy lane from the home green past the regal Shinnecock Hills clubhouse to the pro shop/scorer’s room, his even-par scorecard in his back pocket. Do you think he gives one damn hoot about John Shippen or Stanford White or the tears in Raymond Floyd’s eyes when he won here in ’86. This is a yes-or-no quiz and yes is wrong. That’s why he’s good. The best in the world, actually. He shot a front-nine 41 on Saturday and played his way into the tournament. (You will never hear him use the word “championship.”) Nobody does see-ball, hit-ball better than Johnson, although Koepka is almost a contender.
This exchange from Johnson’s pre-tournament press conference deserves a long shelf life. A local club pro asked the 2016 U.S. Open winner, “Is your mind on something during your swing?”
“That’s a good question because I have no idea,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, it’s not really doing anything. I’m thinking about the number I want to hit it and where I want to start it, what kind of shot I want to hit. But when I’m actually hitting it, I’m not really thinking about anything. Never really thought about it, though.”
That was not a one-off. Last August, he won a FedEx Cup event on Long Island, on a course about 60 miles west of Shinnecock Hills. He was asked what he was thinking when he was trailing Jordan Spieth by five shots through five holes on Sunday.
“Well—nothing, really,” he said.
He’s a genius.
On U.S. Open Sunday, when Johnson got halfway up that pathway, Paulina Gretzky, his fiancee and the mother of his two children, was waiting for him, camera-ready, as per usual. Johnson walked arm-in-arm with her the rest of the way. I don’t know—this is mind-reading, a dangerous thing to do—but it looked to me like something he did for her, and for the cameras pointed at them. Another nod to modern life.
In the privacy of the pro shop/scorer’s room, with the winner beside him and his scorecard in front of him, Johnson had a cold one in his right hand and his cellphone in the other. Lose the cellphone and you’ve got Al Besselink, 60 years ago. He dated some beauties, too.
It’s been said often, sometimes slyly, that Johnson is not exactly a scholar. Memo to the ABDs (the academic term for those who have not completed their doctorates): there’s more than one type of intelligence in this world. I followed Johnson around when he made an early trip to Erin Hills. He was figuring things out about the course so fast it was mind-boggling. He put a pencil in the middle of one green and said, “If they put the pin there, you can’t get it close.” Then he demonstrated with a lag putt the truth of his observation. Then the other players in his group did the same. It was cool. Maybe that’s why he plays U.S. Opens so well, on difficult courses you have to figure out in a hurry.
After signing his card, Johnson blew by the minions assigned to bring him to the FOX Sports broadcast booth and repaired to the player locker room, accompanied by his agent, David Winkle. There he packed up and answered questions with the nonchalance of someone who knows he’s going to have more chances to win more majors and if he doesn’t that’s OK too.
He reeled off his lip-outs without ever scratching his head, commented how much he likes hard courses and said the Saturday conditions were “a little much.” He was complaining about nothing.
To get himself right in it, late on Sunday, Johnson, in the second-to-last group, needed a birdie on the par-5 16th. His par there, to Koepka’s birdie, was half the tip of the knife.
Seventeen was a downwind par-3 with a 9-iron. He had to stiff one and hope for Koepka to mangle it. They both, of course, know what it’s like to win on Father’s Day. Koepka did it just a year ago. But Koepka is coming off a left hand-and-wrist injury, and Johnson won last week in Memphis.
He stood on that tee in the lowering sun, and—let’s stop this tape right here. This is not the time for weather color and a gauzy description of how he tossed the grass. Not with this guy.
His 9-iron was a moon shot that finished short and his three-putt bogey ended his day.
Though not literally. I asked what it was like to play 18 when he didn’t really have a chance to win the tournament, not after he and Koepka both hit matching fade tee shots that finished beside each other on the right side of the fairway on the long par 4.
“Still need a good finish,” he said.
I stayed this week in a guest house in the village here and my next door neighbor was the journeyman golfer Michael Putnam. His brother Andrew Putnam finished second to Johnson last week at Memphis. I had the idea from Michael that Johnson basically hit 3-iron to his Andrew’s 3-wood. Not exactly, but it gives you the idea.
Michael also told a comical story about playing Johnson in a college tournament, hosted by Coastal Carolina, Johnson’s school. Michael was visiting, from Pepperdine and Johnson for Coastal Carolina. Their day of golf consisted of 36 holes, with only a brief break. Putnam kept Johnson’s card and Johnson kept Putnam’s, except for after 18 holes Johnson handed Putnam a completely empty card. Michael misremembered one of his scores and later realized he had signed an incorrect scorecard. “The only time I’ve ever been DQed,” he said, laughing at the memory. Johnson did not, as best I could tell, lose any sleep over the matter. Athletic nonchalance is a beautiful thing.
I asked Johnson how he felt about playing alongside the golfer who won the thing, a golfer with whom he logs many hours in the gym.
“If I couldn’t win I definitely wanted him,” Johnson said.
Let me see if I can capture the emotion with which he expressed this.
Nope, got nothing.
Anyway, you have to like Dustin Johnson’s chances at Carnoustie. The course is hard, etc. Plus, he has people to make sure his passport is up to date.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]