OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – When things aren’t going the way a player would have hoped on the course the default plan is normally more – play more, practice more, press more.
But then Dustin Johnson isn’t most players.
A man of few words, Johnson’s change in competitive fortunes this week at The Northern Trust can be summed up in one word – less.
Less speed going back, as in a slower back swing, and less work on the range following a week spent relaxing and spear fishing in the warm clear waters of the Bahamas following the PGA Championship.
We’re not talking Hideki Matsuyama back swing slow, just enough of a pace adjustment to allow the bomber to find the rhythm in that powerful swing that made him literally unbeatable for a solid stretch this spring and the consensus favorite heading into the Masters.
There’s no exact explanation for how things got out of sync. The injury that forced him to withdraw from the Masters is an easy enough starting point, but that flawless swing just hasn’t been the same since.
“I'd have liked to play better in the majors. Getting hurt before Augusta, which is going right into the major season, didn't really help, especially for the momentum and how good I felt like I was swinging, and everything was going in a really good direction,” he said. “But I feel like I've got it back on the right track. I feel like I'm swinging well again.”
Although he hasn’t been willing to blame his pedestrian play on that lower back injury, he did say on Friday at Glen Oaks that he’s been “fine the last month or so,” which suggests there was a healthy slice of the summer when he wasn’t 100 percent.
For two days on Long Island, however, he’s looked more like the March DJ, when he won back-to-back World Golf Championships, than the June DJ, when he missed back-to-back cuts at the Memorial and U.S. Open.
He’s fifth in the field this week in driving distance, fourth in greens in regulation and first in strokes gained-tee to green, a statistical snapshot of a player’s advantage over the field average.
Put another way, he looks like the world’s top-ranked player, an advantage he has maintained despite his relatively average play this summer which includes just a single top-10 finish since the first week of May.
“Besides the bump on [Nos.] 4 and 5 for him, if he hits the two fairways, he's probably at 10 under,” said Jon Rahm, who went head-to-head with Johnson at both of his WGC victories this year. “Yesterday he hit it unbelievably good. He shot 5 under missing putts. Not many people were probably able to say that yesterday.”
That “bump” came on Nos. 4 and 5 on Friday, when Johnson played his second shots from the wrong holes following wayward drives and resulted in back-to-back bogeys on his way to a 1-under 69.
“I just hung back a little bit on both those drives,” Johnson explained. “One I held on to and it sliced, and the other one I released, and it just went straight down the left side.”
Johnson also added a new putter to his bag this week, a TaylorMade prototype similar to the Scotty Cameron he used to win the 2016 U.S. Open, but statistically he’s not exactly killing it on the greens and he conceded that it hasn’t been his putting that’s held him back the last few months.
Johnson’s advantage begins with his driver and ends with a vastly improved wedge game that ultimately laid the foundation for both his first major victory in ’16 at the U.S. Open and his ascent to the top of the World Golf Ranking. But neither area had been living up to the ridiculously high standard that he set earlier in the season.
That was until he arrived in New York. For two rounds, DJ’s play and position on the leaderboard have been more familiar, which is particularly imposing on a course like Glen Oaks, which qualifies as a bona fide bombers ballpark.
“This one is right up DJ's alley, but there's not many courses that don't fit him,” said Fowler, who is tied for the lead with Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Jhonattan Vegas at 6 under. “Long courses, they become somewhat shorter for him, and the shorter courses, can basically take driver and lob-wedge and putter.”
That Johnson took a distinctly less-is-more approach to his return to form is only apropos for a player who has a history of doing things at a slightly different pace.