ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The Old Course is a nuanced test, one that is intellectually stimulating and endlessly frustrating. Like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube only if the cube was allowed to fight back. “You could play every day here for a year and you would just scratch the surface of what you can know about this place,” asserted Cameron Young, and that was after he shot an eight-under 64 on Thursday.
That is all well and good and probably true. So explain to us how Dustin Johnson, a man who laughs in the face of nuance, is contending at the Open Championship?
After an opening-round 68, Johnson delivered a five-under 67 on Friday at St. Andrews, giving him the clubhouse lead as the afternoon wave tees off.
“I thought I played really nicely, just drove it well, hit a lot of quality iron shots, gave myself a lot of looks at birdie,” Johnson said. “And just [a] really solid day. Never really got out of position. Missed a few short ones for birdie, but other than that, felt like I putted well and rolled it good.”
Through 36 holes Johnson has disproved a number of theories. That his game is more than muscle and wedges and timely putting, for one. Even with the Old Course’s defenses down, this is not a set-up that can be bomb-and-gouged. He can manufacture shots when he needs to, he can play this game on the ground and just as importantly he knows the difference between offense and defense.
Johnson also showed he’s not running on fumes. His last PGA Tour win came in November 2020, his last win anywhere in January 2021. Forty is on the horizon. Combined with his controversial move to LIV Golf—where the money is opulent but the level of competition is questionable—it was fair to wonder if Johnson had transitioned from gladiator to barnstormer. On that front, Johnson showed he’s still up for a fight.
“I've played some good golf … just not consistently,” Johnson said on his slump. “I feel like over the last few months my game's starting to see a lot more consistency in the shot shapes and the strikes and starting to putt it a little bit better.”
On a deeper level, Johnson proved what he’s had to prove so many times in his career. That underestimating his approach, and the man behind it, is a fool’s errand.
Johnson doesn’t get hung up in the cerebral gymnastics most golfers flip themselves through, and he has no appetite for the sport’s awe and reverence. To Johnson, this game is a profession and he tackles it with efficiency and simplicity. Compare Young’s contention to Johnson’s strategy. When it comes to course game-planning, Johnson has boiled it down to the following: "If I can't figure out a golf course in three days, I need to find a new job."
It’s not that Johnson lacks a cognitive understanding. It’s just his understanding is not copacetic with others, and what is different is often viewed as pejorative. Where some see the Old Course and its idiosyncrasies as a challenge of the heart and mind, Johnson just sees a golf course.
"Feel like I've got a good game plan. Kind of depends on the wind direction, how you attack the golf course," Johnson said. "If I can just keep out of the bunkers and just keep playing kind of smart golf where, when I have a good number and a club that I can get it close to the hole, I can be aggressive. But when not, just kind of hit it to 30, 40 feet and try to two-putt."
Notice we said different, not better or higher. There is a flipside to that coin. Yes, he has a U.S. Open and Masters title. But there are a number of near-misses and missteps and outright stumbles at majors. There’s a belief that the poise and simplicity that have fueled his consistency backfires at the big stages. These championships require something extra, a recalibration of the situation and the moment, and Johnson has been unable—or perhaps unwilling—to break his cadence. It should be noted that Johnson led this championship the last time it was at St. Andrews at the halfway mark. He ultimately finished T-49.
Not that Johnson ruminates on that missed chance. Or frankly, recalls.
“To be honest, I don't even remember the third round from seven years ago,” Johnson said. “I've played a lot of golf since then, and that was a long time ago. Obviously any time playing in a major and playing golf courses, you learn stuff about yourself. But that was quite a while ago. I'm sorry, I really don't remember.”
There is no looking back in Johnson’s world, no kicking himself on what was or what could have been. No looking to far forward, either. Only thing that matters is the next shot.
Johnson’s blinders-on focus doesn’t just apply to his golf. It should be noted the Old Course is not the only matter of nuance this week. LIV Golf and its divisive nature continue to hover on the horizon like a storm, and those associated with the Saudi-backed group have had their reputations and standings tainted in the eyes of a contingent of the sport. That includes Johnson, who was the first household name to sign with the fledgling circuit. While Johnson has never been especially beloved by galleries—at least to the extent enjoyed by the Tigers and Rorys and Spieths—fans generally pulled for him. Now … well, now things are complicated.
There are fans that are upset with those who jumped to LIV Golf. There are those that are conflicted, and those that have stuck with the LIV defectors. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, Johnson doesn’t give a damn.
“Honestly, I don't read anything. So I wouldn't know what you were saying or if there was anything negative being said,” Johnson said, when asked about the LIV fallout. “I don't pay attention to it.”
When asked again how he quiets all the noise surrounding the issue, Johnson reiterated, “That's exactly how I do it. I don't read. I don't look at it. It doesn't bother me because obviously, everyone has their own opinion and I have mine, and the only one I care about is mine.”
The Old Course might be a Rubik’s Cube to most. The schism that threatens professional golf is equally messy and complex. To Johnson, for better and worse, it’s all Connect Four. When it comes to this championship, through two days at least, he’s got two in a row.
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