DJ all grown up and ready to tame Sawgrass

By Rex HoggardMay 6, 2015, 9:25 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – “Redeemed himself a little bit from last year,” Dustin Johnson said with a smile.

Johnson was talking about his brother, Austin, who punched a 9-iron into the wind at the famous 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass on Wednesday to 18 feet in the annual caddie closest-to-the-pin contest.

For all the change in Johnson’s life the last few months, however, he could just as easily been referring to himself.

A day after announcing he is taking a leave of absence from the PGA Tour last August, reported Johnson had been suspended for six months after testing positive for cocaine.

The Tour and Johnson both denied the report, which cited a single unidentified source, and he returned to the circuit in February at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Whatever demons Johnson needed to overcome – be they the “personal problems” he cited when he stepped away or something much more serious– the aftermath has been nothing short of a true redemption story.

After missing the cut at Torrey Pines, Johnson finished in the top 10 in five of his next six starts, including his victory at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and his best showing at the Masters (T-6).

For those closest to him, that seamless rebound was hardly a surprise.

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“The talent has always been there. You didn’t expect anything else when he came back,” swing coach Butch Harmon said on Wednesday at TPC Sawgrass.

What has surprised those around the slugger is the poise and maturity he has shown since returning from his hiatus.

“He’s a completely different person,” Harmon said. “What I’ve seen is a person, he may only be 30 years old, but he’s finally grown up and matured. He’s embraced that responsibility and it’s done wonders for him.”

Johnson was always a singular talent with well above-average power on a tour where potential is measured by the yard. He currently holds the longest active streak for most consecutive seasons with at least one victory – eight seasons and counting – and when his swing is timed up, as it was at Doral, he has the ability to dominate fields.

At Doral he rallied from five strokes behind J.B. Holmes with a closing 69 to claim his first World Golf Championship title.

But then all along it was the battles off the golf course that seemed to be Johnson’s toughest opponent.

Although he remains unwilling to go into details, his decision to step away from the game “to seek professional help for personal challenges,” was a nod to his unfulfilled potential.

“I had to take a look at my goals,” he told in January. “Finding out [fiancée] Paulina [Gretzky] was pregnant I knew it was time to do some soul searching and really work on me. I want to be a great father and a great husband.”

By all accounts he’s succeeding on both fronts.

The new and improved DJ shed 12 pounds while adding muscle and refined a power game that was already the gold standard on Tour.

He also added a support structure, including a “life coach” and regular conversations with Wayne Gretzky, Paulina’s father. But the biggest change in Johnson’s life has been the addition of Tatum, his son who was born on Jan. 19.

“His demeanor has completely changed. The responsibility of being a dad and having a child has changed him totally on his outlook of life and how he’s lived his life in the past,” Harmon said. “He seems to have a sense of calm about him that I’ve never seen before.”

The most interesting part of fatherhood has been how it’s impacted Johnson’s life away from the golf course. Asked on Wednesday at TPC Sawgrass how he balances his time Johnson’s take was telling.

“I’m in the gym early in the mornings so I can get home in the afternoon and hang out with the little man,” he said.

Competitively, this week represents another milestone for Johnson. In a half dozen starts at the Tour’s marquee event his best finish is a tie for 34th and he’s posted just one round in the 60s.

It’s an inexplicable drought for a game that has always travelled well.

“I like the golf course a lot. But it’s tough, it’s always windy, it plays difficult. The greens are tricky,” said Johnson, before quickly adding what can only be described as an internal pep talk, “I feel like I’m playing a lot more consistent this year. I’m driving it a little bit straighter. That will definitely help around here.”

It’s a striking new outlook, but then what else would one expect from a player who is featured on the cover of June’s Golf Digest adjacent the headline, “The New DJ.”

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.

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Ortiz leads LAAC through 54; Niemann, Gana one back

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 8:15 pm

Mexico's Alvaro Ortiz shot a 1-under 70 Monday to take the 54-hole lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship in Chile.

At 4 under for the week, he leads by one over over Argentina's Jaime Lopez Rivarola, Chile's Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann, and Guatemala's Dnaiel Gurtner.

Ortiz is the younger brother of three-time winner Carlos. Alvaro, a senior at Arkansas, finished tied for third at the LAAC in 2016 and lost in a three-way playoff last year that included Niemann and Gana, the champion.

Ortiz shared the 54-hole lead with Gana last year and they will once again play in the final group on Tuesday, along with Gurtner, a redshirt junior at TCU.

“Literally, I've been thinking about [winning] all year long," Ortiz said Monday. "Yes, I am a very emotional player, but tomorrow I want to go out calm and with a lot of patience. I don't want the emotions to get the better of me. What I've learned this past year, especially in the tournaments I’ve played for my university, is that I have become more mature and that I have learned how to control myself on the inside on the golf course.”

In the group behind, Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who is poised to turn professional, unless of course he walks away with the title.

“I feel a lot of motivation at the moment, especially because I am the only player in the field that shot seven under (during the second round), and I am actually just one shot off the lead," he said. "So I believe that tomorrow I can shoot another very low round."

Tuesday's winner will earn an invitation to this year's Masters and exemptions into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, and final qualifying for The Open.