The highs and lows of Dustin Johnson's spectacular 2020
It’s fair to say that 2020 encapsulated the entire Dustin Johnson Experience. When things are going good for Johnson—which is often—he can make this impossible game look impossibly easy. Even so, Johnson’s career has partially been defined not for what it is, but for what it is not, particularly at the majors. Just when the latter seemed cemented with misses at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, however, it was erased, and in beautiful fashion, at the Masters.
To fully appreciate Johnson’s November breakthrough is to behold what the 36-year-old South Carolina native traversed to get to that moment. And though Johnson’s career has been a roller coaster, this year put that ride to the extremes. Let’s revisit it by reviewing Johnson’s spectacular 2020.
Note: This is the third iteration of this high/low device, with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy serving as previous spotlights. And with those profiles came with emotional gauges of their whirlwind seasons: A Tigermania Meter for the 15-time major winner, and a Rory Overreaction Scale (also known as “RORS”). However, there is no instrument for DJ because, in the good and bad, the man keeps it level. Plus our editor told us to keep this under 3,000 words.
January: Contemplative … and calling his shot
Making his first start in four months, a sabbatical induced by arthroscopic knee surgery following the Tour Championship in September 2019, Johnson finished a respectable T-7 in a field of 34 at the Sentry Tournament of Championships. But it is what Johnson did off the course that warrants our attention.
DJ press conferences are a beautiful hodgepodge of monotony and performance art, yet they are seldom revelatory. He plays things close to the vest, especially when it comes to discussions of his station or legacy in the game. So it was interesting that in an early week presser in Maui, when asked if he was surprised he hasn’t won more in his career, Johnson was refreshingly meditative.
“Surprised? No. … But should I have won more? I think so,” Johnson said. When a follow-up inquired how much more, Johnson replied: “Probably about double.”
It was an admission from Johnson to something golf observers have long asserted. That, as impressive as Johnson’s has been over 13 seasons on tour, you can’t discuss his career without the caveat, “It could be better.” However, lest you think this was an athlete wondering what might have been, Johnson made it clear which way his head was turned.
“I know what I’m capable of and I know what it takes to win out here,” Johnson said. “For me, a successful year would be obviously winning three or four times and competing in all the majors, putting myself in positions to win golf tournaments every week.”
That is one heck of a foreshadow.
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February: Silent but steady
The quietest month for Johnson (relatively speaking) was also his busiest. He made a spirited title defense at the Saudi International, ultimately finishing two strokes behind winner Graeme McDowell. Johnson then seemingly disproved the ill effects of jet lag, standing in T-7 through three days at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am until a Sunday 78 dropped him outside the top 30. He bounced back with a T-10 at the Genesis Invitational, which may have felt like a letdown given his history at Riviera (nine top 10s in 13 starts) and a so-so 72 on Sunday. A rough Thursday at the WGC-Mexico followed, making him a spectator for the final three days.
The best compliment we can give Johnson is the above constitutes an entire year’s worth of highlights for the majority of professional golfers. For Johnson, it’s a ho-hum February.
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March: Tokyo Drift
Not much from Johnson—or anyone, for that matter—as the tour suspended operations following Round 1 of the Players on March 12 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. For posterity, Johnson turned in a first-round 70 at TPC Sawgrass, seven shots back of Hideki Matsuyama.
However, March is not without notoriety. Johnson, at the time No. 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking, officially withdrew from Olympic consideration for the 2020 Summer Games. This was not totally a surprise, with Johnson expressing doubt about playing in Tokyo earlier this year at the Saudi International.
“Representing the United States in the Olympics is something that I definitely would be proud to do, but is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that,” Johnson said at the end of January. “There are so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So, you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”
According to Johnson’s agent David Winkle, Johnson passed on the Olympics to focus on the FedEx Cup. (More foreshadowing!) It was the second time Johnson passed on golf’s return to the Olympics, citing zika concerns in pulling out of the 2016 Summer Games.
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April/ May: Back for a good cause
Is this an ad or simply a man trying to keep himself entertained during lockdown?
You’re right, it’s an ad. But that’s all there is to report from April. May brought a tad more color, Johnson joining Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff for a charity exhibition at Seminole. DJ, to be frank, was rusty, looking like he just discovered he was playing in the event 20 minutes before he teed off. There was also the sight of Johnson waging a fierce battle with his stand bag, although in his defense that’s probably the first time he’s dealt with straps since his Coastal Carolina days. Conversely, Johnson helped usher a sense of normalcy, the first golf spectacle since the Players. More importantly, the group raised $5.5 million for the American Nurses and CDC Foundations.
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June: Back in the saddle
The rust Johnson showed at Seminole remained at the tour’s restart at Colonial, a 71-71 keeping him from the weekend. His play improved the following week in Hilton Head to the tune of 15 under, a score that would have won the RBC Heritage nine of the previous 10 years. This season it was only good for T-17. The finish proved to be an inflection point. Since his runner-up at the PGA Championship in May 2019, Johnson had a lone top 10 in a full-fledged tour event. He ranked 52nd in strokes gained and 20th in the FedEx Cup, with the Heritage dropping him out of the OWGR top five for the first time since 2016. It was a predicament that lasted all of a week.
Johnson got sizzling on Friday at the Travelers Championship with a second-round 64 and turned the flames up to 10 Saturday with a 61. He stayed hot to start Sunday with five birdies in his first 10 holes then stayed cool in the closing stretch, withstanding a weather delay, a charge from Kevin Streelman and a few self-inflicted errors to win at TPC River Highlands by one.
“I put in the work, so I feel like I’ve put in enough hard work to where my game should be spot on all the time,” Johnson said. “Obviously coming off of an injury, or surgery last fall, and then only playing a couple tournaments before our shutdown, so I didn’t really get a lot of golf to get back in a rhythm.”
It was Johnson’s 21st win on tour. With a trophy case that mammoth—filled with prizes from the U.S. Open, WGCs, playoff events, Player of the Year honors—it’s easy and fair to wonder what shelf, if any, this tournament occupies. But, mentioned above, it had been some time since Johnson contended. Though few were wondering if he’d come back, there’s always the possibility of not returning from the wilderness. The victory gave Johnson his 13th straight season with a win on tour—and served as a warning that golf’s gunslinger was back in town.
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July: Oddities, worries and the quote of the year
It was an unforgettable year for Johnson but July is a month he’d rather forget.
After two weeks off following his Travelers win, Johnson came out humbled at Muirfield Village, shooting back-to-back 80s for a quick out at the Memorial. “I just struggled. It was one of those weeks,” Johnson said of his Columbus blues. The Travelers conquest still fresh, Johnson’s performance was more curious than troubling. (And a reminder that if the best golfer in the world can look this lost, there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
What was worrisome was Johnson’s next outing at the 3M Open, where he withdrew following an opening-round eight-over 78 citing a back injury. Johnson’s agent said it was merely tightness. Still, after looking so invincible at the end of June, DJ looked very, very human heading into a seven-week stretch featuring two majors and the tour’s postseason. The lone bright spot: Johnson made a quadruple-bogey 9 at TPC Twin Cities’ 18th hole, and described it as follows (emphasis ours):
“Hit a great drive on 18 and we only had like 199 [yards] to cover from where I was, 208 flag, it was a perfect 6-iron. Hit it right at it and never once did I think it was going to go in the water. That never crossed my mind when it was in the air. Just went in the water and I hit two more shots in the water, then I hit a good one, made a tap-in for a 9.”
Not quite Seve Ballesteros’ “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make” golf, but darn close.
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August: The run begins
Grab your oven mitts, folks. We’re about to touch a heater.
But this dominance, linear as it proved to be, was not of a single rhythm. There was an all-time gut punch, a jab from a (former?) friend and another shortcoming that reinforced the stigma that follows Johnson at majors. Because these beats bounced all over the page, let’s breakdown DJ’s August in item form:
- Johnson’s month began innocently enough, a T-12 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational nullifying concerns on lingering back issues.
- Shot a Saturday-best 65 at TPC Harding Park to take a one-shot lead into Sunday at the PGA Championship.
- Was dissed by Brooks Koepka. Two back of Johnson, Koepka took a not-so-subtle dig at Johnson’s major track record Saturday night. “I like my chances,” Koepka said. “When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized. I don’t know, [Johnson’s] only won one. I’m playing good. I don’t know, we’ll see.”
- Shoots 68 in the final round of the PGA but is past by Collin Morikawa’s 64, coming up short by two. In truth the final result looks closer than it was, as Johnson was even par through 16 holes, birdieing the 16th and 18th after Morikawa had essentially wrapped up the Wanamaker. Johnson is now 0-for-4 at converting 54-hole leads at majors.
- Washed out the bitterness of Harding Park with a tour de force at The Northern Trust, winning the first FedEx Cup event by a head-turning 11 shots. Johnson was 14 under during a 13-hole stretch over Rounds 1 and 2, and with seven straight pars to end Friday it’s safe to say Johnson shot the most disappointing 60 in tour history.
- Returns to No. 1 in the OWGR.
- Canned a double-breaking 43-footer for birdie at Olympia Fields’ 18th to force a playoff with Jon Rahm, only to watch Rahm drill a 66-foot sidewinder on the first hole of sudden death for the win.
Good gravy. We need a cigarette just recapping that adventure.
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September: FedEx Cup glory but a Winged Foot letdown
Count Johnson an advocate of the Tour Championship’s staggered start. All things being equal, Xander Schauffele beats Johnson by four strokes over four days at East Lake, but with Johnson beginning the season finale atop the leader board at 10 under thanks to the tour’s pole-position scoring, versus Schauffele’s three-under springboard, Johnson does enough to hold off Xander’s spirited effort to capture his first FedEx Cup and its $15 million windfall.
“I wanted to be a FedEx Cup champion,” Johnson said afterward. “It’s something in my career I’d like to be, and obviously today I got the FedEx Cup. Very proud of the way I played. I’ve played really good golf over the last four tournaments.”
But September is not all smiles and rainbows. Coming off two wins and two silver medals, Johnson was the overwhelming favorite for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot two weeks later. But his opening 73 left him eight off the lead, and he entered the final day 10 back of Matthew Wolff. There was a bit of saving grace on Sunday, staying steady (final-round 70) while the rest of the field went south, giving Johnson a backdoor T-6. Yet there once more is the rub with Johnson: What represents a commendable showing for anyone else is viewed as a letdown for him. Not that the sentiment is necessarily wrong; a ratio of 19 major top 10s with a lone victory does seem out of whack. Those standards can be unfair, but that is the deal with stardom.
One addendum: In his early week presser at Winged Foot, Johnson was unsure if he played at Winged Foot before: “Well, I had thought so, but I guess somebody was telling me I played a NetJets outing here 10 or 11 years ago, but I want to say I don’t think we played the West Course. I think we played the other one because I didn’t remember one hole, so we must have played the other course.”
There are a lot of ways to cut this turkey, so let’s keep it on the surface: These guys play so many courses that Winged Foot East, one of the top 50 layouts in the country, is forgettable. Must be nice.
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October: COVID strikes
It appears Johnson’s tear has come to an end at the hands of the pandemic. On Oct. 13, Johnson withdraws ahead of the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek after testing positive for COVID-19.
“Obviously, I am very disappointed,” Johnson said in a statement. “I was really looking forward to competing this week, but will do everything I can to return as quickly as possible. I have already had a few calls with the tour’s medical team and appreciate all the support and guidance they have given me.”
Johnson becomes the most prominent active player in the sport to contract the disease. He also misses the Zozo Championship, quarantined in a hotel room for 11 days. As for what he did to keep himself entertained, Johnson says … well, nothing.
“I was just laying around—kind of doing nothing,” Johnson said. “The most movement I made was to the shower. And then I had a little outside area, so I would go sit outside for a little bit. That was it.”
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. This was a cat who was unruffled by a penalty hanging over his head at Oakmont as he tried to win his first major. COVID’s got nothing on that.
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November: A legacy redefined
No sluggishness in return from COVID, shooting 66-66-65 in his final three rounds at the Vivint Houston Open to finish T-2 and inspiring hope that he would be locked and loaded for Augusta. Honestly, after the golf gods wiped out his run leading up to the 2017 Masters, they owed him. And Johnson did not let the providence go to waste.
A 65 tied for the Round 1 lead, with a follow-up 70 keeping him in the top stop. He left the field behind him on Saturday, starting with a near albatross at the par-5 second along with five birdies for another 65. With a four-shot lead to start the final round, the only player in Johnson’s way was Johnson. And through the first five holes, he did just that. DJ failed to birdie the second, bogeyed the fourth and five, and suddenly his past miscues seemed very present, his lead down to one.
But Johnson answered, and answered with vigor. He birdied the sixth to start to rebuild a cushion and played the final 13 holes in five under. He was patient, unflappable, made his moves when he needed to, and for that he lapped the field by five in setting a tournament record at 20 under par.
With that, Johnson forever quieted the whispers that plagued him. Perhaps that’s why the always stoic gunslinger had an emotional response after winning. The question that surrounds him is no longer “what if?” It’s now “what’s next?”