Dustin Johnson is a golf savant. Yes, really
There's a scene in "Good Will Hunting"—which is an odd conduit to a golf piece, but stay with us—where Will Hunting (played by the inimitable Matt Damon) is explaining his character's mathematical genius to Skylar, his love interest. Hunting posits that when Beethoven saw a piano, it made sense to him. Beethoven couldn't convey why or how, but everything clicked; he could play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn't paint you a picture, I probably can't hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can't play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that... I could always just play.
Which brings us to Dustin Johnson.
Johnson captured the WGC-Mexico Championship this weekend. It wasn't so much a win as it was an act of warfare, only Rory McIlroy coming within 10 shots of Johnson's 21-under score. The 34-year-old has 11 wins in his last 54 starts, 27 top 10s in that span, and the last time he finished a tournament outside the top three in the world rankings was 2016. The WGC-Mexico also served as a career benchmark for Johnson, becoming just the fifth player in the last 50 years with 20 victories before 35. The others: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller. If that wasn’t enough, Johnson now has a win in each of his first 12 seasons on tour, something accomplished by just Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Forget rarefied territory; that is golf royalty. But Johnson isn't treated as such.
His success, so the prevailing thought goes, is solely a product of his physical talent. There’s no strategy around the course; Johnson bludgeons it into submission. See ball, hit ball, try to smile.
Which is true...to an extent. Power is his forte, ranking first or second in strokes gained/distance the past four seasons. And even against the ever-growing fit backdrop of the sport, Johnson is a specimen, a composite of Clint Eastwood and the Wolverine.
But this notion contains a wheelbarrow of wrongs. Because Johnson is more than a Long Drive contestant; he's won twice at Chapultepec, a venue that's supposed to be a thinking man's course. Ditto Riviera, and some Pennsylvania joint called Oakmont. There is a method to his madness, a cognitive understanding of what it takes.
Dustin Johnson is a golf savant.
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Dr. Bhrett McCabe is a renowned sports and performance psychologist who works with PGA Tour and LPGA players, as well as the University of Alabama athletic department and an NBA basketball team. He's also a former athlete, pitching for two NCAA title teams at LSU.
What constitutes a virtuoso, in any forum, is a concept in which McCabe is well-versed. His job is to assist clients in their path of self-actualization, to become the best they can be. While that's attainable for all, there are a select few that operate on a separate, heightened plane. They are peerless.
"What he (Johnson) is doing, in a sport that is not contributive to prolonged success, would qualify," McCabe said.
Compared to other greats of the game, Johnson's mind is rarely credited as an asset. Quite the opposite, as Johnson's occasionally a punchline for media, fans, even fellow pros. Mickelson once asked Johnson on Tuesday of the Masters, "So, what are your plans tonight?" Mickelson, a three-time Masters’ winner, was referring to the Champions Dinner, but admitted Johnson didn't get the joke.
“Might have been a little too subtle,” Mickelson laughed.
From Jones to Hogan to Nicklaus to Watson to Woods to Spieth, the best have been able to explain their sport in scholarly tones. Their discourse is intuitive and serious; Johnson is decidedly not. He talks about the game like it's a game. Nothing more. As such, his press conferences have become somewhat infamous, reporters' long-winded questions met with blunt responses. You would be forgiven for thinking they were performance art. Following his win in Mexico:
Q. What did you use to punch out?
DUSTIN JOHNSON: I used a 6 iron.
Q. And when you first got up to your ball, and you saw your ball, did you first see the tree or the cart path?
DUSTIN JOHNSON: A tree.
Q. How soon before you noticed the cart path?
DUSTIN JOHNSON: Well, when I tried to hit like when I got in there with a club to see where I was going to hit it and then obviously I was standing on the cart path.
Followed shortly by:
Q. Have you found yourself over the years talking confident even though you didn't feel all that confident in your game?
DUSTIN JOHNSON: No.
Q. Mainly us, when someone asks you about your game, feeling good about it?
DUSTIN JOHNSON: Maybe, maybe no, I don't know. I feel like I'm pretty honest. If I'm not feeling that good, I'll let you now.
Quotes that won't be stitched on a pillow for posterity.
Johnson's answers, paired with his game, paint the picture of a beautiful house with no one home. McCabe says the opposite is often true.
"We confuse a large and deep vocabulary with intelligence," McCabe says. "Sometimes those big words are really an obfuscation, to make us think the talker knows more than they do, or to bring an elevated sense of self-worth." McCabe says it's elementary, really: intelligence is getting the message across to the recipient, and being comfortable that the right answer doesn't need bells or whistles. For some, that takes 40 words. Others, a mere four.
Although, there are exceptions. McCabe notes that geniuses often struggle in explaining their ways. It's not that Johnson is inarticulate; how do you translate what you have, what you know, to those that will never have either?
"It's not that they don't suffer fools. This way . . . it's second nature, it's just their being," McCabe says. "Do you consciously have to think about breathing? No, you just breathe.
"It can take years, a lifetime, to chase that acquired behavior. Those who own it are not like the rest of us."
McCabe also says we have a tendency to discredit achievements that, ostensibly, come not by means of effort and preparation but of natural aptitude.
"Because of his tremendous athleticism, it's assumed any of us could do what Johnson has done," McCabe says. "We only see what our eyes see. We don't credit the blueprint that only he sees, and the thousands of hours it took to put him in this position."
A sentiment many hold on Johnson, despite the evolution that's unfolded. Part of what's fueled Johnson's rise is recalibrating his practice methods, particularly in his approach and wedge game. He switched to a fade and the dividends were immediate, jumping from 31st in strokes gained/approach in 2016 to fifth the last two seasons.
Then there's his strategy. It can take players multiple go-rounds—seasons even—to solve a course's layout. Johnson has a different timeline, saying repeatedly that, "If I can't figure out a golf course in three days, I need to find a new job." An outlook supported by his resume, as he's enjoyed riches on courses with dissimilar profiles.
In this facet, what Johnson has is a gift. It can be nurtured and fostered, but not taught.
"How can LeBron James see passing lanes that others can't? Why can Nick Saban and Bill Belichick breakdown opposing schemes better than anybody else? They're not the only ones who study game tape," McCabe says. "They have a flair, an intuition, for their professions."
But what about the missteps, many in spectacular fashion? On the surface, they convey Johnson is lacking something the best are supposed to have. However, Johnson's failures are not just failures. In a sense, they are revelatory, in the most positive connotation.
"Dustin is the poster child for everything sport psychologists recommend but what nobody is really able to do," coach Claude Harmon III told Golf Digest. "After he three-putted the last hole at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and lost to Jordan Spieth, we all knew he'd be crushed. An hour later, I was in the garage of his rental house, loading up the cars to go to the airport. Dustin came out, looked at me and smiled. 'I played so [bleeping] good today,' he said. And that was it. He never mentioned it again, at least not to me."
McCabe refers to this as a diminished sense of loss aversion, a common trait in top performers.
“Those who are achievement focused are the most willing to fail,” McCabe says. “They just want to achieve more than anything else. When that constraint is lifted, it’s amazing what can be attained.”
To keep putting himself in position after so much heartache proves that Dustin is not short on nerve. That Johnson was able to compartmentalize the circus of the 2016 U.S. Open, a penalty hanging over his head down the closing stretch at the sport's most challenging set-up, should have ended that discussion.
"How he blocked [all that out] was dumbfounding," McCabe says. "The most mentally-tough athletes would have wilted in that situation. He was ambivalent."
Placing so much finality on his shortcomings does not factor the totality of Johnson's career. Including what could lay ahead.
It's apropos that Johnson's birthday falls days after Mickelson. Johnson is currently 34; when Mickelson was in this stage of his career, he was months away from his Masters triumph. Mickelson's aptitude and ability were unquestioned, his fortitude and decision-making not so much. There were real questions if he'd ever win a major; some already considered him a lost cause and wasted talent. Fourteen years later, Mickelson's unquestionably one of the 12 best American golfers of all-time.
Johnson's Mexican conquest has revived a conversation we hold on a yearly basis: Where is DJ going? Could he finally don the green jacket? Are multiple majors on the docket for 2019?
Until now, that's a question we've been unable to answer. Perhaps because we're not supposed to. To stop worrying about the future, and enjoy the show Johnson is staging in the present.
And yet …
“If I can keep this form up … I always go back to two years ago, this tournament, L.A., then the Masters … I had some video of me at the Masters before I got hurt," Johnson said. "The swing feels as close to that as it has since then. So, if I can swing it like I am right now and definitely keep the putter rolling like I did this week, yeah, it can be a good year.”
In short, the man feels like he can play.
Make no mistake, Tiger remains the sun the golf galaxy revolves around. But Dustin's star, in this moment, is the one that shines the brightest. After all, “the genius,” German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, “lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets.”
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