NORTON, Mass. – Butch Harmon always likened Dustin Johnson to an elite NFL cornerback.
One play, he’ll get burned for an 85-yard touchdown. The next, he’d make a game-changing interception.
“But you can’t ever think that you’re not the best in the game,” said Harmon’s son, Claude, who coaches Johnson. “DJ has a unique ability not to let things bother him. He never thinks about what’s happened in the past. If you could design a golfer, you’d design someone like him.”
It’s that bulletproof mentality that has lifted Johnson to astounding heights, a now-22-time PGA Tour winner and future Hall of Famer who, at age 36, is already exempt for life. And when he’s locked in, as he was this week at The Northern Trust, Johnson’s performances can be so commanding ... so dominating ... so demoralizing ... that it’s a wonder he ever needs to bounce back in the first place.
Even with the delayed finish in near darkness Sunday at TPC Boston, Johnson beat a playoff field by a mind-boggling 11 shots. It’s the most lopsided margin of victory on Tour since 2006.
Johnson was 13 clear of fourth place.
He was 15 ahead of eighth.
Those who shared 18th place – a nice week, normally – were 18 strokes behind.
“That’s the type of talent he is. I’ve been watching it for 25 years,” said fellow South Carolina native Kevin Kisner, who tied for fourth. “I’m pretty accustomed to it. When he’s on, I just step to the side and try to add on to my bank account.”
With the victory, Johnson banked $1.8 million more (on top of the $65 million he’s already earned, not including untold millions in endorsements) and climbed to No. 1 in the world for the first time in 15 months. He also climbed back into the all-too-familiar pole position in the FedExCup standings.
And fittingly, this triumph, like so many in his career, was born out of disappointment. Two weeks ago, he held the 54-hole lead at the PGA Championship, closed with an unspectacular 68 and was blown away by Collin Morikawa’s dazzling finish. The lead headline was Morikawa, naturally – a 23-year-old wunderkind hitting legendary shots down the stretch to capture his first major. But the secondary story was, once again, Johnson, and in particular his inability to build on a major résumé that includes one trophy and several heartbreaks.
That statistical fact was top of mind for Johnson’s one-time pal, Brooks Koepka on the eve of the final round at TPC Harding Park. Koepka wasn’t wrong, of course, but the sucker punch didn’t land because it’s not as though Johnson has squandered his immense gifts. As Rory McIlroy said, rushing to Johnson’s defense: “It’s sort of hard to knock a guy that’s got 21 wins on the PGA Tour, which is three times what Brooks has.”
No one in history has ever blown his first four 54-hole leads in a major, but Johnson is nothing if not resilient. Like the torched cornerback, he needed all of a few minutes to get over the sting of another near-miss. “I didn’t feel like I really did anything wrong,” he said. The dig by Koepka didn’t faze him either: “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t bother me. He can think whatever he wants.”
“He doesn’t listen to anybody, and that’s why he’s so good,” Harmon said. “He’s one of the most positive golfers I’ve ever seen. He’ll shoot 75 and I’ll say, ‘Hey do you want to hit some balls?’ And he’ll say, ‘No, I didn’t hit the ball that bad today. A bad swing here or there, and a lot of good putts that didn’t go in.’ He’s hard on himself, but I don’t think he beats himself up. He has a unique ability to stay in the present.”
So Johnson arrived here at TPC Boston brimming with confidence, like usual, hoping to improve on his playoff positioning (No. 15 starting the week). He was dreadful on the greens in the opening round – 29 putts, five missed inside 10 feet, more than two strokes lost to the field – and afterward Harmon wasn’t surprised to see Johnson dig through his car for the extra putters he always carries. Johnson is a notorious tinkerer, but he had vowed to stick with the black TaylorMade Spider putter that he’d won with 10 times previously. That afternoon he worked on his stroke, implementing a new pre-shot routine to tuck in his right elbow, and felt good about the progress made. “Sometimes you just need to put it in timeout for a minute or two and then it starts working again,” he said.
The Northern Trust: Full-field scores | Full coverage
The next day, in the finest three hours of Johnson’s career, he shredded the first 11 holes in 11 under, looking as though he might shatter the Tour scoring record of 58. Instead, he made only pars to the clubhouse, settling for an impossibly easy 60 that was disappointing to everyone but Johnson. Forever in the present, he was quick to offer the more important takeaway – that now he led by two heading into the weekend.
Bending TPC Boston to his will, Johnson missed only two fairways on his way to a Saturday 64 that busted the tournament wide open. A bogey-free 63 on Sunday in which he hit every green in regulation gave him an 11-shot victory and 30-under total, the lowest score to par in a Tour event played outside the friendly confines of Kapalua.
“The leaderboard, you just check and look at how much more under par he is, and you just laugh,” said Harry Higgs, who was 16 shots behind (T-11). “My goal was to try and win the B flight, because the A flight was taken care of. It’s unbelievable.”
In every facet of the game this was a masterpiece, as Johnson ranked second in driving distance, topped the field in greens in iron play, proximity to hole and putts per GIR, and gained a whopping 18.1 strokes on the field tee to green.
“As good as I’ve seen him play,” Harmon said.
And so here comes another chance for Johnson to capture that elusive FedExCup crown. Five times he has finished inside the top 5 without taking home the season-long prize, including the oh-so-close moment in 2016, when Johnson could only watch from the clubhouse as he came within a Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell stroke of claiming the $10 million bonus.
“It means a lot to all the guys out here,” Johnson said. “It definitely means a lot to me, and it’s something that I really want to be.”
“To him, the FedExCup is a benchmark of greatness,” Harmon said. “It’d be great for his résumé.”
Debate his number of majors won, the times he woulda-coulda-shoulda been better, but another awe-inspiring performance reminded us that there isn’t much missing.