Dustin Johnson does things his own unique way, which might make him the man to beat at the Open
By Michael Bamberger
ST. ANDREWS — How do you like this resume?
Win a U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Win a Masters at its usual location.
Win a British Open at the Old Course.
Here he comes. Dustin Johnson. You probably know he won the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont and the 2020 Masters. Now he is contending in the grandest and oldest of golf tournaments, on the funkiest playing field known to golfkind, in this 30th playing of the British Open at the Old Course.
Johnson followed his Thursday 68 with a Friday 67. On the weekend, he will be one of the dozen or so golfers who will contend for this 150th Open Championship.
On the day that Tiger Woods may have made his farewell to Open golf at St. Andrews, Johnson stood tall in the epicenter of the game, for the first time in almost two years.
(Yes, some students of Johnson’s body of work will note that he did win the Saudi International at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in the King Abdullah Economic City, about 60 miles from Jeddah, in February 2021. We’re aware. The tournament did not meet epicenter-of-golf standards.)
Johnson is a marquee player in the new LIV league. His next event will be at the LIV tournament at the end of the month at Trump Bedminster. Woods has been dismissive of the upstart league, and some golf hands are wondering if Johnson’s 36-hole total is a kind of response to Woods and to other LIV naysayers.
Not a chance.
Here’s an early question posed to Johnson by a reporter on Friday afternoon: “Have the LIV guys been galvanized at all by everything that’s been said the past few weeks?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Johnson said.
Later, in the same press conference: “Talor Gooch said that [the LIV golfers] have banded together this week, considering all the negativity surrounding you. Is that motivating you in any way?”
“Not to me because, honestly, I don’t read anything,” Johnson said. “So I wouldn’t know what you’re saying or if there was anything negative being said. I don’t pay attention to it.”
Can that sentiment be completely true? No. But you can take to the bank that bit about him not paying attention to the noise. Johnson lives in a bubble called Johnsonville. In it, he treats people as people treat him. That’s one of the things that makes him appealing. He doesn’t step outside it.
Johnson doesn’t fly the flag for Golfing Greatness or Ye Olde History Book. His stock-in-trade is extreme golf skill (despite a push-slice stroke on short left-to-right putts) and his distinctive athletic nonchalance. He’s going to ride those qualities right into the sunset with a quick stop at the World Golf Hall of Fame along the way.
Let’s take a moment here to remember that Johnson is the only known pro to cite “the sandwiches” as his favorite Masters tradition. Let’s also remember that Johnson, without a trace of meanness but while playing in Tiger’s event (the Genesis Invitational), once said, “I don’t play tournaments based on what Tiger’s doing.” Both are minor examples of a guy who does his own thing. He’s independent. That’s what got him to LIV. That’s what got him so far north on this British Open leaderboard.
Many golfers are sheep. He is not. At the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris, the U.S. players woke up one morning to find their rooms had no hot water. They were grousing at breakfast when Johnson sauntered into the room, fresh as a daisy. He was asked if his room had hot water. It didn’t. But he found a solution.
“I just put on my robe, went down to the spa, and showered there,” Johnson said.
To which Phil Mickelson said, “You see, Dustin — you are smart.”
That year both were on a losing U.S. Ryder Cup team. Last year Johnson was the star of the winning Ryder Cup team, and Mickelson was its star assistant captain. Now they are both on the LIV team, and, as things stand, not likely to be part of a Ryder Cup team again. This is a strange, strange time in golf. It’s hard to know what exactly Johnson cares about. That might be the secret to his success to date, and this weekend as well.
A word that shows up repeatedly in his interviews is obviously. He used it a half-dozen times in about 10 minutes on Friday afternoon. A whole bunch of things are obvious to him, and not to us. How to play tricky greenside pitches. How to find another gear for an extra 20 yards with driver in hand. How to make golf look easy on courses as diverse as Oakmont and Augusta National and the Old Course.
It’s obvious to him because he is a golfing savant, in the tradition of John Daly, who won this championship here in 1995.
It takes all kinds. Dustin Johnson isn’t going anywhere.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com