UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Dustin Johnson 2.0 certainly has all of the characteristics of the original – tall, athletic, powerful and subtly confident – and his display on Thursday at the new-look U.S. Open checked off all of the familiar boxes – booming drives, fearless lines, effortless results.
But as the nine-time PGA Tour winner put the finishing touches on an opening-round 65 at crispy Chambers Bay there was no mistaking the fact that this guy is different.
With his signature economy of words, Johnson made that point clear when the subject turned to the last time he found himself in the mix at his national championship.
“That was a long time ago,” he said when asked about the 2010 U.S. Open when he turned a three-stroke 54-hole lead into a spectacularly disappointing tie for eighth. “I think I'm a better player, obviously a lot more mature. My game is definitely in better shape than it was then.”
But then his game was never in doubt, not since the day he arrived on the Tour in 2008 and turned more heads than a barber.
At 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Johnson was a swing coach’s dream, a rare mix of physical gifts and genetic talent with club head speed (121 mph for those scoring at home) that defied common standards.
Where Johnson has evolved, however, has more to do with the speed he was living his life.
Last August, he announced he was taking a leave of absence from the game “to seek professional help for personal challenges I have faced.”
Two days after announcing that break, Golf.com, citing an unnamed source, reported that Johnson had been suspended by the Tour for failing his third drug test. Both the Tour and Johnson denied that report.
Whatever transpired between Johnson and the Tour, when he returned to the fold earlier this year at the Farmers Insurance Open it was clear things were different.
“He seems to have a sense of calm about him now that I never saw before,” Butch Harmon, Johnson’s swing coach, recently told GolfChannel.com. “The talent has always been there. What I have seen is a person who may be 30 years old, but he’s finally grown up.”
Despite the storm of speculation, Johnson quickly changed the conversation by embracing fatherhood and newborn son, Tatum, and winning his fifth event back after returning from his hiatus.
Even his opening 65 at Chambers Bay, a card marred by just a single bogey at his finishing hole (No. 9) and good enough for a share of the lead, was different.
Sure, the power was there.
At the par-4 seventh hole, for example, he launched his tee shot over a corner of the fairway the vast majority of the field wouldn’t even consider taking on.
“Over the right side [of No. 7] it's a pretty long carry, so it definitely helps, because I can fly it over that corner,” explained Johnson, who averaged 336 yards off the tee on Thursday.
“Today on 16 with the tee up, that bunker on the right, it's like a 300 [yard] carry, and I can carry it that far, so it definitely helps to take the bunker out of play.”
But he was just as quick to point out that despite a prevailing opinion that Chambers Bay is a bomber’s paradise, it is in fact a second-shot golf course that rewards patience almost as much as precision as evidenced by the fact that Johnson forged his way into the lead without making a birdie on either of the par 5s.
Many players have embraced that well-played iron shots will find trouble and the occasional clunker will end up within birdie range. It’s a reality that’s often difficult to square with and a sign of how far Johnson has come.
Dealing with that occasional rub of the green has not always been his stock in trade. Troubling twists like his 6-iron tee shot at No. 9 – which caromed left of the putting surface, weaved between two bunkers and came to rest in a particularly nasty lie – would have derailed the other guy.
“It rolled all the way through [the bunker]. So then I almost hit it backwards up and around,” he offered with a c’est la vie shrug.
This is not the same player who imploded on Sunday at Pebble Beach in 2010, where he played his first four holes in 6 over par.
Missing from this edition, at least early in the experiment, are the mental lapses that cost Johnson the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits when he ground his club in a hazard on the 72nd hole.
While the sum of Johnson’s physical parts remains the same, the more esoteric changes have given way to something more complete, someone more content.