- You don't have this kind of success in U.S. Opens on talent alone. It's time to reasses what we think of Dustin Johnson.
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Dustin Johnson is playing golf like he talks: simple answers for everything that comes his way. Shinnecock Hills has been moody and feisty all week, but Johnson has shrugged his way to a 69–67 start. He is four under par on a course where two under might win the tournament. Johnson is easy to caricature as Gomer the Golfer, but he is the only golfer in the field who hasn’t been scratching his head. Everybody else is playing chess. Johnson is playing checkers.
Checkers is easier, y’all.
As Johnson approached the interview area Friday, Henrik Stenson patted him on the shoulder and said, “Tell ’em you’re invincible.” Johnson does seem that way sometimes. Of course, he isn’t invincible. But his best is currently better than anybody else’s best, and he has been at his best this week. There is a reason for that.
The U.S. Open is the toughest mental test in the sport. Johnson is 36 holes from winning it for the second time. In the last 20 years, only Tiger Woods has done that. Johnson also finished second in 2015—only a three-putt from six feet on the acne-riddled greens at Chambers Bay kept him from a playoff with Jordan Spieth. In 2014, he finished fourth. Johnson missed the cut at last year’s U.S. Open, but that tournament was an anomaly in almost every way. Brooks Koepka finished 16-under par to win it.
That’s not a typical U.S. Open. This is. And as Dustin’s brother and caddie Austin Johnson said this week, “The harder the course, generally the better he plays. He loves U.S. Opens. He loves majors. He loves tough, hard, firm courses.”
He loves the challenges that force other players to look at their scorecard the way a lot of people look at their bill after eating dinner in the Hamptons: Do I have to sign this? When they go high, Johnson goes low. Michelle Obama might not approve, but what’s her handicap, anyway?
Golf fans love making jokes about Johnson’s mental aptitude, but he can’t hear them from the middle of the fairway. Part of his problem is that he is so physically gifted—400-yard drives, wedges from damn near everywhere else—and not terribly charismatic. But his U.S. Open record demands inspection, and if he wins this week, we should reassess what we think of Dustin Johnson. This is a thinker’s tournament, a grinder’s tournament. You don’t win it twice on physical talent alone.
Jack Nicklaus loved tough courses. Tiger Woods loves them. The greats like when the course is challenging and the other players complain about it. That’s when the best and brightest shine. We know Johnson is one of the best. This week, in his way, he has been one of the brightest.
“I don’t think anyone underrates the physical ability, and everyone talks about it so much, but in order to be the best player in the world you do have to manage your game well on the golf course,” said 2003 U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk. “And I think that’s something no one talks about.”
It’s easy to think of the last two weeks as a display of Johnson’s pure talent. Five days ago, Johnson holed out from the fairway on the 18th hole to win the FedEx St. Jude by six.
Austin Johnson knows better. On Thursday, he said, “We could have easily been three over through three.” Instead, Dustin saved three straight difficult pars. He has done a masterful job of thinking his way around a place where every par is hard-earned.
World No. 2 Justin Thomas played with Johnson the last two days, and he said Johnson isn’t really doing anything exceptionally well. He is just hitting the shots he needs to hit. How scary is that? It helps that his shots don’t spin much—the wind doesn’t affect him as much as it affects most guys. And it helps that, as Thomas said, Johnson has been a little lucky. He wasn’t saying it out of jealousy or anger but as a simple observation. As Thomas said, every time somebody wins an event, they are a little lucky. It’s part of golf.
And it’s true: Johnson has been a little lucky. He holed a bunker shot on Thursday that Austin said would have rolled four feet past the hole if it hadn’t gone in instead. That could just have easily kicked away. And on the par-3 seventh on Friday (Johnson’s 16th hole of the day), his tee shot easily could have rolled off the green, but it stayed on a ridge. He then sank the 45-foot putt. That requires a little luck, too. And when Johnson is good and lucky…well, everybody else is playing for second.
We’re not ready to declare the U.S. Open over just yet. After all, we wouldn’t want to ruin Johnson’s TV plans.
“Imma go home and watch it right now,” he said after shooting his 67 Friday. “Sit on the couch.”
He really does make everything sound so simple. The rest of the field wishes it were.