LOS ANGELES – Greatness is never more than a phone call away for Dustin Johnson.
His future father-in-law Wayne Gretzky, dubbed The Great One by a reporter when he was 10 years old, is the embodiment of transcendent talent combined with dedication and a dogged inability to accept anything less than victory.
“Look at guys like Larry Bird and George Brett and John McEnroe - that's what they did in their careers," Gretzky once said. "They all wanted to be the guy under the microscope late in the game or late in the match. So you just take on that know-how that's part of your responsibility, and you learn that's what makes it exciting. That's what makes it fun.”
Johnson has never had an issue with fun and he certainly can relate to the natural ability that made Gretzky a Hall of Famer. At 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Johnson is an athletic anomaly, at least in golf, a physical unicorn with the rare combination of power and precision.
But being great, that was something else.
He was good, very good, in fact, winning with impressive regularity beginning with his first year on the PGA Tour in 2008, but whatever that element is that separates the great players, those players who transcend sport, from the good ones was missing.
But that started to change in the summer of 2014 when Johnson and his longtime trainer, Joey Diovisalvi, sat on the floor of Diovisalvi’s Jupiter, Fla., performance center and formulated a plan.
“He said, ‘Joey D, I don’t care what it takes; I want to win majors and be No. 1 in the world.’ I’ll never forget it,” Diovisalvi said. “Like many athletes, you have talent, you become aware of it and you find that hard work will take you to a place where if you stay focused and balanced you can go so far.”
Johnson made a similar commitment to his swing coach Butch Harmon, who spent much of 2015 focusing on DJ’s wedge game in order to make the most of his much-heralded power advantage.
“He works hard; everybody thinks he doesn’t work hard but he does," Harmon said Sunday from Palm Beach (Fla.) International Airport. "He will let go when the work is done and enjoy himself, but he really works hard."
Harmon wasn’t watching the final round of the Genesis Open, where Johnson was romping his way to a five-stroke victory. He didn’t have to. Harmon has seen what happens when the 32-year-old plays like this.
Johnson has always been a world-class player, an elite player, but his performance over 72 wet and wildly disjointed holes at Riviera Country Club felt transformative. His victory pushed him past Jason Day and to No. 1 in the world ranking for the first time and extended his streak of seasons with a victory to 10 in a row. Only two players won at least one event for 10-plus seasons immediately after turning pro since 1960 – Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.
“He does want to be [great]," Harmon said. "We have talked about it since the season started. Being No. 1 is his goal, but he knows that winning is the only way to take care of that. He knows that all the hard work is paying off. When the season started I thought he’d be No. 1 very quickly.”
His margin of victory at Riviera, where he’d finished runner-up twice, is a measure of how far ahead of the pack he can be, given the right conditions.
After a once-in-a-decade storm threatened to wash away the field, not to mention Southern California, on Friday, Johnson began to assert himself with a second-round 66 and took a one-stroke advantage at the turn. But it was his play on a 36-hole marathon Sunday that met the standard of true greatness.
Johnson opened his Sunday with the morning’s second-lowest round, a bogey-free 64 that included birdies on his final three holes, and began the final dash with a six-stroke lead.
Because of Friday’s tempest officials didn’t re-pair for the final round, which meant his closest chaser, Wesley Bryan, teed off more than an hour before Johnson for the final round. It was probably for the best.
Johnson made birdie at his first two holes of the final round, added another at the sixth and for a moment, after Bryan had bogeyed the 12th hole, he enjoyed a nine-stroke advantage.
He would come back to earth, however slightly, but at that point the message was sent.
“I think I'm a good player, but I don't know, everybody has their own opinion,” said Johnson, who still didn’t seem entirely at ease with the summit where he now finds himself. “I believe in myself, I think I'm a great player. The best in the world, I mean until now I probably wouldn't have said I was the best in the world, but now I can say it.”
In fairness, if Johnson didn’t think in such grand terms early in his career he’d come by it honestly. As a senior at Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, S.C., he finished fourth individually in the state championship and enrolled to play college golf at Coastal Carolina, which is not exactly an NCAA powerhouse.
But if it took Johnson some time to come to grips with his potential, those who crossed paths with him never wavered in their belief that the bomber was destined for greatness.
“Honestly, I'm surprised it took so long for him to get to No. 1 in the world,” said Bryan, who competed against Johnson when they were juniors and is also a Dutch Fork High graduate. “He's got all the talent that you could ever want in a golfer.”
The yoke of greatness comes in vastly different cuts. Where Woods seemed born for the title, others have come by it reluctantly, uncomfortable with either the trappings of stardom or the unrelenting challenges of maintaining the required level of intensity.
But make no mistake, Dustin Johnson – the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, major champion and now world No. 1 – is by any measure a great player.