Is Dustin Johnson the Best Player in the Post-Tiger Generation?

Dustin Johnson’s talent is nothing short of generational, so why don’t we talk about him as one of the all-time greats? There’s one Major detail holding him back.
Publish date:

Dustin Johnson’s wins feel a bit different from other players’ wins. It’s not quite prime Tiger-level dominance, but when DJ is at his best, he truly looks like he’s playing a different, significantly easier game than his peers.

He is the best driver of the golf ball in the world. His distance control with his short irons and wedges is unparalleled. He’s (unfairly) thought of as a mindless bomber, but he’s an underrated strategist. When he’s putting as well as he did last weekend, he’s virtually unbeatable. He’s been ranked inside the world top three for all but one week over the past 32 months, including holding the No. 1 spot for 64 straight weeks and 81 weeks overall. His consistency is remarkable: in 105 worldwide starts since the beginning of 2016, he has 12 victories, 42 top-10s and just four missed cuts.

At the current moment, it’s obvious that Johnson’s best is better than anyone else’s best on Tour, and it’s not particularly close. Consider this: his last four victories have come by a combined 22 shots.

The most recent example of his dominance came at last week’s WGC-Mexico Championship, where DJ put forth a historically dominant performance: in a field with 46 of the top 50 players in the world, on a course where disaster lurks everywhere, only one player was able to stay within 10 shots of Johnson. The five-shot victory was a true tour de force, a fitting way for Johnson to reach the ultra-significant milestone of 20 career PGA Tour victories. He’s the 38th player in the history of the game to accomplish the feat, and he’s just the fifth player in the last 50 years to do it before turning 35. The others? Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

Of those four players, Johnson’s career aligns most closely with Miller’s. Watson, Mickelson and Woods have a combined 27 major championships. Miller has two. Johnson has one. Miller is a Hall of Famer, but because he doesn’t have the major championships, he’s not thought of as one of the game’s all-time greats. Unless Johnson adds to his lone major win, the 2016 U.S. Open, he is at risk of falling into the same category, where he’d join guys like Jim Furyk (18 wins, one major) and Davis Love III (21 wins, one major). With all due respect to those two guys, neither was ever considered the best player in the world, as DJ has been for the better part of the last three years. He’s simply on a different level of elite.

Contrast Johnson’s wins-to-majors ratio (20:1) with three other players in the best-since-Tiger conversation. Rory McIlroy has 14 wins and four majors. Jordan Spieth has 11 wins and three majors. Brooks Koepka has five wins and three majors. Martin Kaymer, Angel Cabrera and Zach Johnson each have more major championships than DJ.

Dustin Johnson’s talent is nothing short of generational, and that a player of his caliber only has one major at age 34 is dumbfounding. Particularly so when you consider his six victories at World Golf Championships, events that feature major-quality fields. He has no issue beating—and, as he showed in Mexico, lapping—the best players in the world. And it’s not like he hasn’t put himself in position to win majors. There was the collapse at Pebble Beach in the 2010 U.S. Open; the boneheaded decision later that season to ground his club in a bunker at Whistling Straits; the 2-iron out of bounds in the 2011 British Open; the three-putt on the 72nd green at Chambers Bay; and the final-round 77 last year at Shinnecock. Based off talent and where he’s often been after 54 (or 71) holes in majors, DJ should have at least three big ones by now, but should doesn’t count for much at all. The fact of the matter is he’s shown a disturbing propensity to play some of his worst golf when the lights are brightest.

There’s also the oft-forgotten but very-real possibility that he squandered a good portion of his physical prime by being less-than-fully invested in his game. After his 2014 leave of absence to focus on “personal issues” in his life—which, according to Golf Magazine, was the result of his third positive drug test—he seemed to commit to dialing in his wedges and short game and made a long overdue switch from hitting primarily draws to cuts off the tee. It is no coincidence, surely, that shortly thereafter he started cashing in on his all-world potential, including his major breakthrough at Oakmont.

Is golf’s emphasis on the majors fair? Yes and no. On one hand, there is validity in emphasizing the four big ones because, at least in theory, they have the best fields and are played at the most challenging courses. Plus, every other American sport prioritizes postseason play—the equivalent to majors—when assessing where a player ranks all-time. Not producing on the biggest stages puts a ceiling on a legacy. Just ask Dan Marino or Charles Barkley. On the flip side, focusing solely on four tournaments devalues how difficult it is to win on today’s PGA Tour, where world-class players tee it up every single week in fields that are deeper than ever.

Whether justified or not, modern golfers will always be judged largely on how many major championships they win. Tiger Woods is likely to pass Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour victories, but he’ll never be the consensus Greatest of All Time unless he passes Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

Still just 34 years old, Johnson has at least five years of prime golf left. He’ll more than likely win at least one more major, and he’s now the favorite—both on paper and in reality—to win the Masters. A green jacket in six week's time would lend major credence to the claim that Johnson is the best player of the post-Tiger Woods generation.