SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The road to Sunday’s trophy presentation remains congested and hazardous, like the Long Island Expressway at, well any hour, and Dustin Johnson has proven that he’s not immune to monumental miscues. But at this juncture there are few scenarios that don’t end with DJ hoisting the hardware for the second time on Father’s Day.
The 2016 champion weathered brutal winds on Thursday afternoon at the U.S. Open, chilling rain on Friday morning, and a defiant Shinnecock Hills layout to pull away from the field at the 118th edition.
The wildly unfair assessment of DJ is that he’s a mindless basher who bludgeons courses into submission, less an artist than he is an enforcer who is emboldened by all that effortless power. That appraisal is as lazy as it is flawed.
Shinnecock Hills is not one to be bullied. Although it’s long, even by modern standards, at 7,400 yards and a par of 70, by all accounts the Long Island gem is not a bomber’s course. Instead, players contend it’s a second-shot layout, where iron play, short game and a savvy game plan are crucial; although in DJ’s case the latter doesn’t seem to be a priority.
Asked earlier this week what he’s thinking about while he’s standing over a shot, his answer was perfectly DJ: “That's a good question, because I have no idea. Hopefully, it's not really doing anything. I'm thinking about the number I want to hit it and where I want to start it, what kind of shot I want to hit. But when I'm actually hitting it, I'm not really thinking about anything.”
His pre-shot routine notwithstanding, Johnson now stands 36 holes away from becoming his generation’s preeminent U.S. Open player.
Consider that following his second-round 67, which left him alone in the lead at 4 under, DJ has been in contention to win five of the last nine national championships and is two wild Sunday finishes away from having a three-pack of U.S. Open titles.
He’s a singular athlete created in a lab with graphite and Teflon to withstand golf’s toughest test.
He may not have the consistency of a prime Tiger Woods, the appeal of Phil Mickelson or the finesse of Jordan Spieth, but then all three of those players are either headed home after a short workweek on Long Island or well out of contention.
For all of Johnson’s physical prowess, however, it might be his resilience – or maybe it’s indifference – that has propelled him to such lofty heights on the game’s most demanding stage.
This is, after all, the same guy who rode a three-stroke lead into the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open only to stumble his way to a closing round of 82 and a tie for eighth.
Five years later at the failed Chambers Bay experiment, he at least lasted until the 72nd hole before heartbreak arrived with a three-putt from 12 feet to finish a stroke behind Spieth.
No one recovers from that kind of trauma. No one. At least that was the conventional wisdom.
“If I would have walked into the media center at 9 o’clock on Sunday at Chambers Bay [2015 U.S. Open] and said he was going to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont everybody would have just laughed at me. No way he can get over what happened to him – doesn’t drive the ball good enough, doesn’t putt it good enough,” said Johnson’s swing coach Claude Harmon III. “To be able to not have bad s*** bother you, there aren’t too many people out here that can do that.”
The 33-year-old was dominant in ’16 at Oakmont, widely considered the most demanding of the U.S. Open tests, on his way to a four-stroke victory. He arrived at Shinnecock Hills the preemptive favorite following an equally commanding performance last week at the FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Although there is no shortage of dominant players in the game at the moment, for those in Johnson’s generation there are none who have done what he has at the U.S. Open.
Jason Day, 30, has five top-10 finishes and is twice a runner-up at the U.S. Open, but he remains winless in the championship; while Justin Rose, 37, has hoisted the trophy in 2013 and has three top-10 showings. But neither can compete when it comes to Johnson’s dominance in the championship.
Nor can either player compare to Johnson when all of the competitive tumblers fall into place like they have over the last two days.
“You've got to play really good golf if you want to shoot a good score, and I like where par is a good score on every hole no matter what club you got in your hand, what hole it is. A par is a really good score,” Johnson said of his affinity for U.S. Open golf.
That Johnson romped his way over every hump and hurdle the USGA could throw at the modern player, and did so alongside Woods, only served to show how dominant DJ has become at this championship. For Woods, the performance must have looked vaguely familiar, having won this major three times and established the benchmark for success over two seminal decades.
“Dustin was in complete control of what he's doing. He's hitting the ball so flush and so solid. I know it's windy, it's blustery, it was raining early, but he's hitting right through it,” marveled Woods, who missed the cut following rounds of 78-72. “It was good to see because I watched a little bit of it last week [in Memphis] and he was doing the same thing down there. But he's brought it up here and is doing it under these conditions, and he's got beautiful speed on the greens.”
If Woods needed a playing lesson on his place in the game at the moment, the first two days at Shinnecock Hills proved a somber lesson. Johnson could have spotted him three shots a side and still beat the 14-time major champion by two strokes. And for all the talk in recent months about Tiger’s improved power off the tee he was treated to a driving clinic for the first 36 holes.
But it was around Shinnecock Hills’ rolling greens where Johnson truly impressed. For two windswept days he ranks fifth in the field in strokes gained: putting and second in scrambling, going 11-for-15 when it matters the most.
Dismiss DJ as a single-minded bomber, a one-dimensional character of the modern era if you’d like; but at the U.S. Open, on the game’s toughest courses against the deepest fields, Johnson continues to prove he’s a once-in-a-generation player.