Dustin Johnson, the world’s most athletic golfer, gets the monkey off his back at the US Open
One of the most striking covers ever of Golf Digest magazine features Dustin Johnson balancing on a medicine ball with the club at the top of his backswing. That cover prompted many readers, including your columnist, to try emulating the feat in the gym. I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t even manage to balance standing sans a club, let alone swinging it. That feature, which also included Johnson practicing the yogic posture ‘crow’, among other physical feats, underscored what those on the tour already knew: DJ, one of the longest hitters in the world, is possibly the fittest athlete to ever play the game.
DJ’s friend and colleague on the PGA Tour, Jordan Spieth, reiterated that sentiment just before the US Open teed off at the Oakmont Country Club: “Dustin Johnson is, arguably, the most talented player on the PGA Tour. I think it’s a matter of time… He’s not only a freak athlete, he’s a freak golf athlete.”
But for all his undisputed talent, DJ seemed to come undone on the big stage—Major championships. Before winning by three shots at Oakmont, the big American had faltered on no less than five occasions. At the 2010 US Open, he went into the final round with a three-shot lead, but a triple-bogey, a double-bogey and two bogeys in his first seven holes led to a final-round 82 and a tie for the eighth place. That same year, a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the final hole knocked Johnson out of a playoff at the PGA Championship. At the 2011 British Open, Johnson’s hopes were derailed by a double-bogey on the par-5 14th hole and he finished second.
Again, at the Open Championship last year, DJ was the midway leader, but fell away over the weekend to finish 49th.
And lastly, at last year’s US Open, DJ faced a 15-foot putt for eagle on the final hole that would have made him a champion. A birdie would have put him in a playoff with Spieth. He three-putted. Losses like these are hard to absorb and get past. Players tend to dig into memories and experience of winning situations to help them keep their composure when faced with similar challenges. Presumably, DJ wasn’t thinking about near-misses when he teed off on the first hole on the final day, striping it 378 yards down the middle and following up with another 318 yard monster on the second, which set up his first birdie of the day. Perhaps it helped that he was playing catch-up to Shane Lowry, who led by four shots after the third round rather than preserving his lead, which played to his natural aggressive game.
The win makes DJ the fourth player to follow a runner-up finish at the US Open with a victory the next year, joining Tiger Woods (2007-08), Jack Nicklaus (1971-72) and Bobby Jones (three times).“It couldn’t be any better. I think it’s well deserved,” Johnson said. “After everything that I’ve been through in the majors, I’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times. To finally get that major win, it’s huge. It gets me a lot more confidence going into every major to know that I can win.”
DJ’s breakthrough Major win was special on two counts: driving accuracy—coupled with his prodigious length—and mental fortitude. On the fifth green, his ball was deemed to have moved on the green as a result of him grounding the putter. He was informed about his possible infraction on the 12th green and that he may be penalised by one stroke after the video footage was reviewed at the end of the round. It was a ridiculous call by the USGA: not the fact that he was penalised, but rather that the call was left in abeyance, leading to an unwarranted ambiguity about the final result. The ruling body for golf in the US seemed to have realised its folly and released the following statement post the tournament: “Upon reflection, we regret the distraction caused by our decision to wait until the end of the round to decide on the ruling… This created unnecessary ambiguity for Dustin and the other players, as well as spectators on-site, and those watching and listening on television and digital channels.”
The USGA got a get-out-of-jail-free card on this occasion, as DJ refused to be distracted and went on to shoot a one-under to win by three shots. His 10th PGA Tour title propelled DJ to the third spot in world golf rankings and also in the FedEx Cup. It’s exactly where he would have wanted to be, leading up to the Playoffs, which begin in August with The Barclays, a tournament he won back in 2011.
DJ’s victory did not take away the spotlight from Jon Rahm, who wrapped up his amateur career with a scintillating tied-23rd finish. Rahm carried on where he left off at his pro-debut at the Quicken Loans National last week where he nearly won—finishing tied-third behind no other than veteran Vijay Singh (on a comeback trail) and the story of the year so far, Billy Hurley III. Hurley, ranked an unbelievable 607th in the world, came out of nowhere to win his first PGA Tour event, climbing an astonishing 400-odd places in world rankings.
In other news, Rory McIlroy became one of the most high-profile sports stars to opt out of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics because of concerns about Zika virus, saying that it was a “a risk I am unwilling to take”. McIlroy, ranked fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking and was scheduled to play for Ireland, as golf makes its return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. With all due respect for McIlRoy’s personal choice in the matter, his decision to opt out is a stark validation for those who weren’t in favour of professional golfers playing in the Olympics. For thousands of athletes out there, the Olympics represent a lifelong goal—a culmination of everything they’ve strived for in their careers. McIlRoy’s decision gives credence to the belief that for top professional golfers, the Games just don’t seem to have the same priority. What a shame.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game