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The situation was ripe for Dustin Johnson to crumble, again. Leading by a shot in golf’s stiffest test, on America’s hardest track, Johnson was confronted by a USGA official on the 12th hole and told that he might be subject to a post-round penalty. Chaos ensued. The star-crossed talent seemed doomed for even more major heartache, after six years of poor decisions and untimely swings and bad breaks in critical moments.
“Just one more thing to add to the list, right?” he would say later.
But unlike during his previous major meltdowns, Johnson didn’t implode. Just the opposite, in fact. He shrugged off the distraction. He bashed his driver all over Oakmont. And he held steady while everyone faded around him Sunday at the U.S. Open, eventually winning by three shots.
After shedding the label of golf’s most talented tease, Johnson couldn’t hide his relief. “I feel a lot lighter,” he said.
And he played like it, too. Unburdened, he won his next start, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and then top-10’d at The Open. He blew away another elite field at the BMW and had a chance to cap a career year with a FedEx Cup title, but he closed with 73 after taking a share of the 54-hole lead at the Tour Championship.
A few weeks later, to little surprise, he was named by his peers as the PGA Tour Player of the Year. It was the kind of macho performance so many had expected of Johnson ever since he splashed on Tour, in 2008. Though he has won every year in the pros, there always remained a sense that he had underachieved, that a player with such immense physical gifts should dominate the sport.
And so where Johnson goes from here will be fascinating to watch. His game has never looked better. Off the tee, he developed a go-to power fade that kept him in play. He bought a TrackMan and dialed in the distances with his wedges. And he had his best putting year.
But after finally bagging a big one, does Johnson now coast on his talent and win a few times each year – and probably a couple of majors – just because he’s that good? It’s possible, certainly.
The more likely scenario, however, is that he is just getting started.
Comfortable in his own skin, buoyed by the support of the Gretzky family and determined to reach world No. 1, Johnson is poised to go on a tear with his upgraded game and hard-earned self-belief.
June 19: Johnson discusses redemption, penalty in victory news conference
June 19, 20: Reaction to DJ's penalty
July 3: DJ wins back-to-back events, capturing WGC-Bridgestone
DJ and Paulina light up social media