AKRON, Ohio – Dustin Johnson is thoroughly relishing his long-anticipated visit to “Believeland,” and we are not referring to this region of the country awash in celebration after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ historic NBA title run.
Johnson always believed that he had the game and the talent to win a major championship. But now he has that most satisfying rejoinder to all the doubting – validation. You can’t win if you don’t believe. But eventually, you have to win or belief is just a mirage.
With his resounding victory a week ago Sunday in the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, Johnson’s life might not have changed overnight, but the perception of the talented golfer has been forever altered. Most importantly, that perception is different in his own mind.
“Now I know I've got it for sure,” Johnson, 32, said Wednesday at Firestone Country Club. “I felt like I had it before, but it never worked out. But now I really know I've got what it takes to get it done. I think that's kind of -- that's definitely a very good thing to have.
“There’s always that thing in the back of your head telling you, do you really have what it takes. But now I know.”
You bet he does. Withstanding the pressure of the final round of the U.S. Open, and overcoming the difficulty of Oakmont, unease from a potential rules infraction and his own disappointments in major championships, Johnson blasted his way to a three-stroke victory. Until then Johnson wasn’t just the best player yet to win a major, he was carrying the burden of best who already should have won several. Missteps or misjudgments nullified his immense talents, but nothing could hold him back at Oakmont.
“I've been up here a lot talking about what happened and why I didn't win, and so it was definitely nice to win one and get to talk about it instead],” he said with a grin.
Congratulatory texts and messages have poured in, but perhaps one of the most meaningful came from his future father-in-law, hockey great Wayne Gretzky. “He was very happy and very proud. Coming from him was pretty cool,” said Johnson, who has a son with Gretzky’s daughter, Paulina. “He was telling me how it was one of the greatest things he's seen watching that, how it all unfolded and everything, and to see me get it done, so coming from him, I thought that was really cool. It meant a lot, because he's seen a lot of good things.”
Yes, how it all unfolded. That continues to be a subject of discussion. USGA officials informed Johnson on the 12th green of the final round at Oakmont that he might be assessed a one-stroke penalty for causing his ball to move on the fifth green. He played the final seven holes not knowing what his final score would be. When he finally had the chance to look at the videotape of the infraction in question, he still didn’t think he caused the ball to move. But with four shots in hand, he wasn’t going to press the issue, and his eventual margin of victory was three with his final-round 69 and 4-under 276 aggregate score.
“Fortunately it didn't matter because I won by four, and I guess now I won by three,” he said. “At that point I was ready to sign my scorecard and get my trophy, so I just said, ‘Give me the penalty, let's go.’”
And then off he went, first to a series of interviews – interrupted at one point so that he could watch the final minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Final between the Cavs and Golden State Warriors. His head didn’t hit the pillow in his Florida home until 4 a.m. Monday. Then he chilled with family in the Bahamas and reflected, though not a lot. A real celebration was delayed until his birthday last Wednesday.
Now he’s back to work at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational beginning Thursday followed by the Open Championship at Royal Troon and the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club. Could a breakthrough open the floodgates?
He has the validation. And from that he can derive confidence, not that he was lacking. But Believeland isn’t just a destination anymore. Johnson lives in it.
“The first one is definitely the hardest. Well, it was for me,” he said, with a knowing smile. “So I feel like now that I've won one that there's … I know I can do it. I believe I can do it. I mean, I've believed all along that I could do it, and I kept telling you all, it's going to happen if I keep putting myself into position.
“Now that I know that, I've just got to keep putting myself in position to have a chance to win on the back nine on Sundays. I mean, yeah, I think it's the beginning.”
He said it like he believed it.