KAPALUA, Hawaii — The deterioration in Dustin Johnson’s game over the final three months of last season actually started as early as last January at this idyllic venue. He already knew he was having problems with his left knee, but he elected to rehab it throughout the year and held off on surgery until after the Tour Championship.
“It actually got a little better before it started getting worse,” Johnson said.
Which is why you see that Johnson won the WGC-Mexico Championship in February for his 20th PGA Tour title—which makes him a life member—and finished second in the year’s first two majors, the Masters and PGA Championship.
But after that PGA, where he nearly reeled in Brooks Koepka at Bethpage Black after trailing by seven shots going into the final round, Johnson didn’t have another top-15 finish.
“Even though I was playing good at the PGA, I wasn’t playing the way I wanted to,” Johnson said Wednesday at Kapalua Resort on the eve of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, an event the South Carolina native has won twice and in which he is among the favorites again. “Yeah, I had it dialed in that week, but with my knee, with my driver I couldn’t hit anything but a straight shot.
“And then, the rest of the year, I still tried to hit the shots I wanted to, but I just couldn’t do it. The later the year got, the harder it was to do what I wanted to do.”
Johnson, 35, will make his first official start since the Tour Championship last August, though he did compete for the United States in the Presidents Cup in Australia last month. Johnson revealed that as of the Saturday before the Presidents Cup he still was unsure he’d be ready to play, because he still was feeling occasional pain when he swung the driver. He got through it, going 2-2-0 for captain Tiger Woods.
Since then, his knee only has gotten better. His game likely will follow.
The surgery Johnson underwent was a cleaning out of the patellar tendon under his left knee cap. Normal wear and tear had caused some shearing. He underwent a similar procedure on his right knee eight years ago.
As the year progressed, Johnson found himself hanging more on his right side as he made a swing. He still ranked fourth in strokes gained/off the tee and was third in driving distance with an average of 312.0 yards. But he fell to 174th in driving accuracy. That will mess up anyone’s game.
As he so logically pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with hitting a straight ball, “except when you’re trying to hit a cut.”
Now ranked fifth in the world, Johnson never has finished worse than T-16 at Kapalua and hasn’t been out of the top 10 since 2010. He won here in 2011 and ’18, shooting 24-under 268 in the latter victory. Only once has he carded a round over par on the Plantation Course, that coming in the second round last year when he recorded a one-over 74. He still ended up T-4.
Johnson was the first player to embark on a practice round since it was revamped following last year’s Tournament of Champions, teeing it up at first light on Dec. 26. Obviously, he’s raring to go after being sidelined for so long, having never taken off the entire fall portion of the schedule. He couldn’t even hit a ball for two months after the surgery.
“I was pleased with the game and how I played there [in Australia], especially being my first week back and coming off of surgery,” he said. “The game is in good form, though, I feel like. I've played the last six days here, and I feel pretty good.”
Stands to reason that good results should follow.