Dustin Johnson press conferences are a beautiful hodgepodge of monotony and performance art, but they are seldom revelatory. Johnson tends to play things close to the vest, especially when it comes to his own consciousness.
However, on Wednesday ahead of competing in the Sentry Tournament of Champions to start 2020, Johnson broached a topic that’s arguably encapsulated his career.
It started off simple. Making his first PGA Tour start since the Tour Championship in August after undergoing knee surgery in the fall, Johnson expressed gratitude for playing in this week’s winners-only event. “It’s so difficult to win out here,” he said. “The guys out here, they’re so good. You know, any week anybody in the field can win the tournament if they play really good. You never take it for granted because you don’t win that much if you think about the amount of times you play, so winning’s still special and it’s always going to be special for me.”
This was all well and good and true, but it was a notion that could be heard from any tour pro at any press conference. Where things turned is when Johnson was asked if he was surprised he hasn’t won more in his career.
“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.”
For context, Johnson won his 20th PGA Tour event last February at the WGC-Mexico Championship. If that sounds impressive, it is. He became the fifth player in the last 50 years with 20 victories before turning 35, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller. Johnson also boasts a win in each of his first 12 seasons on Tour, something accomplished by just Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Conversely, Wednesday’s comments were a rare public admission from Johnson of something some golf observers have pondered. Though there are more layers to his story than he is credited, the discussion of Johnson’s career often includes something to the effect of: It actually could be better.
Yet does that judgement, one of talent not entirely fulfilled, have merit? The man boasts an inordinate amount of disappointments and close calls, misses that resonate on the biggest stages. Are those the byproducts of shortcomings and flaws, or is something else at play?
The short of it is, yes. To both.
At a basic level, Johnson should have more crystal in his trophy case. It is a verdict derived from a career filled with heartbreaks (2010 PGA, 2015 U.S. Open), collapses (2010 U.S. Open, 2017 WGC-HSBC) and near-misses (not enough space on the Internet to list). Consider that Johnson has had 22 second- and third-place finishes during his PGA Tour career, and another 52 fourth-to-10th finishes. The same observation is true at majors, where Johnson has 17 top-10s and nine top fives.
In impression and reality, Johnson contends at a ridiculously high frequency. Should he have been able to convert more of those close calls into wins? Probably so.
To say this, though, risks allowing golf to be a prisoner to the rest of sport’s win-or-bust mentality, which is a shame because a look at the broader picture can enhance the game’s charm. Case in point: Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors are whatever-adjective-you-want-to-insert, but the Golden Bear’s 48 top-three major finishes are, arguably, just as astonishing. Instead of deriding Johnson for his “almosts”, they should be celebrated.
Not all of these non-wins were barn-burners or Johnson-dominated events, either, and just because one finishes near the top of the scoreboard doesn’t mean he has a claim to a title. This type of thinking is a disservice to the winner, and disregards the inherent nature of golf, where any round, no matter how good, could have always been lower.
There is also the different standard to which some hold Johnson. Like Rory McIlroy, DJ is blessed with a curse: He can make golf, an impossible game, look impossibly easy. For Johnson, most of that outlook is predicated on his power, as he doesn’t so much as hit the ball far as bludgeon a course into submission. While he has proven he’s more than a Long Drive contestant—you don’t win at Oakmont or Riviera off muscle alone—Johnson’s athleticism is almost peerless, and because he’s a physical specimen, we view anything short of victory as a failure.
That’s a fallacy on our parts, for more is needed than physical gifts to be a conqueror. Preparation, fortitude, calculation, moxie, all and more funnel into that cliched-but-bona fide “it” that divides the great from the very, very good.
To say Johnson doesn’t have that gear is unfair; the guy has a major, 20 wins and time spent as the No. 1 ranked player in the world on his résumé, accomplishments not achieved by talent alone. Nevertheless, there’s more than a decade of evidence to claim Johnson hasn’t totally calibrated when to tap into or turn to that “moment calls for it” mode. That is an ability that is just as important as any 330-yard cut.
Perhaps this undefinable quality is best displayed by Brooks Koepka, who for the past two years has been everything many thought Johnson would be. At the 2019 PGA, which Koepka won over Johnson by two, Koepka argued that winning majors is actually easier to do than rank-and-file events because of the “it” factor.
“One hundred and fifty-six in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat,” Koepka said. “From there, about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just, pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.
“I think one of the big things that I’ve learned over the last few years is you don’t need to win it, you don’t have to try to go win it. Just hang around. If you hang around, good things are going to happen.”
What was left unsaid is that Koepka has discovered what to do when given that opportunity. For whatever reason, be it self-inflicted wounds or an inability to rise to the challenge, Johnson has been often left deciphering what went wrong.
If there’s a silver lining for DJ, it’s that there’s precedent for unlocking potential in one’s mid-30s. It’s apropos that Johnson’s birthday falls days after Phil Mickelson. Johnson is 35; when Mickelson was at this stage of his career, he had just secured his first Masters triumph. Months prior, Mickelson’s aptitude and ability were unquestioned, but his temerity 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. Fifteen years later, Mickelson is unquestionably one of the 12 best American golfers of all-time.
Despite a shaky end to 2019—he didn’t have a top-15 finish after his runner-up at the PGA in May due to an ailing knee—Johnson remains in his prime, and remarked on Wednesday that he has a “few good years left in me.”
“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.”
Johnson surmises he should have won more. What he does or does not do with that revelation will be fascinating.