What makes Dustin Johnson tick? Dan Murphy dissects the rise of a quite remarkable character
A couple of weeks after the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, Dustin Johnson travelled to Scotland for that summer’s Open Championship at St Andrews.
It would be his first appearance since missing a 12-footer for eagle on the 72nd green in Washington to win his first major – and then also failing to convert the subsequent three-footer for birdie. Jordan Spieth, hoping for a play-off at best, was suddenly the US Open champion. He added that title to the Green Jacket he had won in April, and headed to the Home of Golf with a shot at the Grand Slam.
Appearing at a function for his long-time equipment sponsors TaylorMade on the Monday of Open week, Johnson was inevitably asked about the trauma of Chambers Bay and what he had been doing in the weeks since, when he had not been seen in public, to try to get over it.
In his defence, he had just arrived on a transatlantic flight. But it wasn’t entirely clear that DJ realised that he was speaking within the shadows of the R&A clubhouse and the first and last holes of the Old Course.
We might as well have been asking him to comment on Young Tom Morris’s four successive Open titles in the 1860s and ’70s. Rather than the most recent major to be contented, in which he was a protagonist.
He just looked up and shrugged, as though we had got the wrong person. No wincing. He wasn’t guarded. No explanation. No nothing.
He was either a very fine actor or Chambers Bay was a distant memory.
Welcome to Planet Dustin.
The truth is that attempts to find depths in Johnson’s character have hitherto been doomed to failure.
His dad says he can never remember him being angry.
One of his best friends, Cameron Hooper, said to ESPN: “When you look at the back story of Dustin’s life, golf is probably the easiest thing he’s ever done.”
- Related: What’s in DJ’s bag at Augusta?
As a 16-year-old, he got in with the wrong crowd. He was persuaded to source the ammunition for a hold-up and then drive the getaway car. The police caught them in the act but DJ was let off, the judge persuaded that he had been led astray.
DJ decided there and then that golf was a preferable career choice and the rest is history.
You might describe his motto as ‘never complain, never explain’.
While he has accumulated the PGA Tour titles at a prodigious rate – 24 wins and 106 top-10 finishes since turning professional in 2007 – there have also been some bumps in the road.
He led by three going into the final round of the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach. Then he made a treble and a double in the first three holes en route to an 82 and a tie for 8th.
Later that year, on the last hole of the PGA, he grounded a club in what he thought was a waste area but was in fact a Whistling Straits bunker. The two stroke penalty took him out of a play-off with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.
An Open challenge
Next year, at Royal St George’s in the Open, he was within two shots of Darren Clarke on the final day. He took aim at the green on the par-5 14th with his second shot only to push it out of bounds and run up a seven.
Off the golf course, he missed the second half of the 2014 season. That was under ‘voluntary leave’ from the PGA Tour ‘to seek professional help for personal challenges’.
At Oakmont in 2016, he finally landed the major his golf so richly deserved – out-lasting Shane Lowry to win his national open.
Was this to be the opening of the floodgates? No, but since then he had racked up another seven major top 10s on his way to Augusta this time around.
And his Masters record – sixth, fourth, 10th and second in his most recent appearances – was ominously good.
Still, though, that can count for little. Just ask the likes of Greg Norman, David Duval, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. All of them featured on countless Masters leaderboards without ever slipping into one of those precious jackets.
Incredibly solid all week, DJ made only two bogeys and nothing worse over the first 54 holes. He won wire to wire. He hit the solo lead early on Saturday and was never caught.
Yet Cameron Smith and Sungjae Im, of all challengers, just wouldn’t go away. They quickly reduced DJ’s lead to a single stroke. Smith remained within two for much of the afternoon.
At such times, Johnson’s preternaturally serene disposition is up there with his greatest assets. Along with that ultra-reliable power fade from the tee.
On Planet Dustin, a vaguely puzzled glance when a drive finds sand or a bend of the knees as a putt slips by is all he gives away. He couldn’t be further away from Bryson DeChambeau’s relentless chatter and analysis. Or Jon Rahm’s apparently volcanic temper bubbling away just under the surface.
That was what made his choked-up interview after receiving his Green Jacket so startling.
Here was the gum-chewing, pistol-toting, alpha-male who always plays it cool unable to get his words out. It turns out he really does care.
Not that we knew it during the tournament itself. DJ never stopped hitting good shots and while he took the Australian, as well as Im, with him for a while, the rest of the field was spreadeagled.
Eventually, so too were Smith and Im. The eventual margin of victory was duly emphatic. The Masters was never seriously in doubt.
Now DJ is a multiple major champion. It is rarer than you might imagine. Roughly two-thirds of all major champions have only won once. It’s a trend that’s only going in one direction, for a variety of reasons including depths of fields, the levelling effect of technology and the sheer scientific analysis that is part of the modern game.
Of his peers, he can now be spoken of in the same breath as Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka, albeit he still trails all three.
Given he is now a serial contender in each major with the exception of the Open, the World No 1 is likely to have many more chances to add to his major collection.
Starting right here, at Augusta, in less than five months’ time. It’s Planet Dustin, and the rest are just watching on right now.