Leading the Way
Ryder Cup 2021: Dustin Johnson won't say Whistling Straits owes him one, but his performance seems to be saying it for him
HAVEN, Wis. — Dustin Johnson didn’t just beat Europe four times over the last two days at Whistling Straits. He gave a middle finger to everyone who has continued to ridicule him for a rules blunder 11 years earlier here of which no one wants to let go.
He should raise another middle finger. For good measure.
America is in great hands for the next decade with all the 20-something talent it will have at its disposal in the Ryder Cup. But it’s Johnson, America’s old warhorse—old being relative at age 37 on a team averaging barely 29 years old, the youngest in history—who is the leader in points while making one.
Say what you will about the steady influences of his partners, Collin Morikawa, with whom he’s won thrice, and Xander Schauffele, but Johnson this week has been the rock the American faithful always thought he could be. It says something about his physical strength and athleticism, as well as the quality of his game, that he is the oldest player for Team USA and yet the only one who will play in all five matches.
“I kept my options open,” said U.S. captain Steve Stricker, who decided to send Johnson back with Morikawa Saturday afternoon in four-ball after watching them work their magic for a second straight time in foursomes Saturday morning. “I wanted to see this morning who was playing well, and you know, when we saw those guys going out there and playing well again, DJ and Collin, I knew straightaway that they needed to go again.”
Coming into this 43rd Ryder Cup with a career record of 7-9-0, including a 1-4 mark in the 2018 matches in Paris, Johnson arguably has been a disappointment. Whether he felt he had something to prove this week only he knows. Given that his impressive career includes only two major titles, he already understands how he can be labeled an underachiever.
But when he tees it up in Sunday’s sixth singles match against Paul Casey at 12:59 EDT, with America fully in command 11-5, Johnson has a chance to become just the second American after Larry Nelson to go 5-0 in this biennial competition and the third overall, following Francesco Molinari three years ago.
“Obviously having DJ [as a partner], he's an amazing player,” said Morikawa, who added that Johnson has exhibited a quiet leadership this week. “I've said it all week, and I'm going to keep saying it, because he really is, he's a great guy and he really made these first two days a little easier on me.”
And hard on the Europeans.
Typical of the dispassionate South Carolinian, Johnson seemed disinterested in his performance this week having any meaning beyond the obvious benefit of helping America win consecutively on home soil for the first time since the teams of 1979 and ’83.
“Yeah, golf course suits me a little bit better here than Paris for sure. But yeah, that's just how it goes,” he said with what has to be the best “what, me worry?” shoulder shrug in the game.
In the run-up to these matches there was scant mention of Johnson’s potential contributions to the Yankee cause, having not won on the PGA Tour since the Masters last November. Even though he is No. 2 in the world. Even though he has the most experience at Whistling Straits, ties for fifth and seventh in the 2010 and 2015 PGA Championships, respectively.
“We knew DJ's record going around here,” Stricker said. “He's had some great events here. Probably should have won one of the PGAs here, but he's enjoyed the course and played it well again this week.”
What value he did seem to bring, if mentioned at all before Friday morning’s opening session, was serving as a convenient punchline.
Apparently, the statute of limitations has not run out on smarmy, self-congratulatory barbs at Johnson’s expense over the two-shot penalty he incurred for grounding his club in a bunker that was inundated with spectator footprints on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship here at the Straits Course. It was an utterly avoidable infraction, but one that he has owned.
What’s strange about the insistence of so many to focus on his error is that Johnson is the guy who cruised to victory in the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont while the specter of an impending penalty stroke awaited him at the finish.
His memory is shorter than Tyrell Hatton’s fuse.
He can’t help it if our stubbornness and insufferable self-conceit precludes us moving on. He did long ago. But now he has the opportunity to rewrite for good his personal narrative at this particular venue.
“It’s way more satisfying to win, obviously,” he said with a grin.
Dustin Johnson really doesn’t care, though, whether or not we notice. Which makes what he has done this week all the more impressive. And memorable.