Well, that didn’t take very long, did it? We've returned to a Tiger Woods World once again on the PGA Tour, blaring across every FM dial. He didn’t win the British Open, but he knocked hard on the door, and now it’s a matter of when Woods will win again. Forget about the bad weekend in Akron. We watch. We wait.
There are a pair of Justins high on the map. Justin Rose has had a hot season and has risen to World No. 2, and Justin Thomas is hot off his first WGC trophy Sunday in the Bridgestone Invitational (scores) and looking to defend his PGA title this week in St. Louis (tee times). Phil Mickelson won again and is on track to make his 12th consecutive U.S. Ryder Cup team (and that new dancing commercial will get some buzz). Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are in search mode, playing under heavy scrutiny. Bubba Watson is a three-time winner this season. Italy’s Francesco Molinari is the flavor of the month. Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele are phenoms on the rise.
Oh, and then there’s Dustin Johnson. He can be easy to overlook, but don’t. He’s actually more than the workout partner of two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, Johnson’s chief competition as pack leader of the PGA Tour’s Alpha Male Division. With so much going on around Johnson, sometimes it can be easy to lose sight that he’s even here. And then you look up in the dusty town center, and he’s standing there, again, guns about to be drawn, like Clint Eastwood in “High Plains Drifter.”
Oh, yeah. That guy. Don’t take Johnson for granted. He’s an incredible talent, and few, if any, make the game appear to be as easy as he can. McIlroy at his best, maybe. Even Woods at his zenith didn't constantly make the game look that effortless, sometimes needing to slash and scramble and grind his way to another trophy.
Already this has been a special season for Johnson. He won for the third time a week ago Sunday in Canada, cruising to victory in the RBC Canadian Open at Glen Abbey. In 15 starts, he has 10 top 10s (No. 10 coming Sunday at WGC-Bridgestone), and only one missed cut. When he failed to make the weekend at the 147th British Open at Carnoustie, he shrugged his shoulders and knew that he wasn’t too far off. That’s the greatest asset of Johnson's. Little bothers him. Miss a cut, move on. He worked a little harder on the putter in Canada, and there he was, winning again. And once he wins, he moves on again. After two lackluster days in Akron, he shifted into a different gear, making 11 birdies and shooting 66-64 on the weekend as Firestone firmed up and got tougher. He played his first 10 holes in 7 under Sunday, and came from nowhere to tie for third.
Four years ago, Johnson missed the cut in Canada – and that, abruptly, shockingly, was the end of his season. There was ample speculation that he was suspended by the Tour – as it turned out, he missed six months, almost to the day – but Johnson and his camp maintained that the focus simply was to step away and work on himself. He started talking with a life coach. He was a lost satellite spinning aimlessly across the universe, a golfer with immense talent who was wasting a gift. At 30, he needed to look in the mirror and grow up.
This writer was one of five who were granted one-on-one interviews with Johnson shortly before his return to competition in 2015. He stood at a crossroads: step up and be great, or continue being just another guy out on Tour.
“To me, in my eyes, I’ve just had a mediocre career so far,” Johnson said candidly by telephone that January night in early 2015. “I feel I should be doing a lot better than that…. I don’t want to be just mediocre; I want to be great.”
Give him credit. He stepped up. He has worked hard in the gym. He became a dad, and he matured. He famously bought a TrackMan launch monitor and shored up one of the weakest aspects of his game, his wedge play. From 50 to 125 yards, Johnson went from a ranking of 166th (2012) all the way to fourth two seasons ago, and continues to rank inside the top 30. Since that 2014 hiatus, Johnson has played 78 tournaments, won 11 times, and had 11 other top-3 finishes. His next victory will be his 20th on Tour, making him a lifetime member. If he were to finish his career with one major – at 34, that would be a huge disappointment – he nonetheless would be solid World Golf Hall of Fame material.
How sharp is Johnson’s game this season? He ranks first on Tour in strokes gained off the tee; first in strokes gained tee to green; first in strokes gained total; first in eagles (holes per, at 64.3); first in birdie average (4.70); first in scoring (68.68); and first in FedEx Cup points (2,683).
If there is one hole to fill for Johnson, he should be better at the majors. Simple as that. He has a game that should fit all of them. On longer tracks, his driving is a huge weapon. On shorter ones, he has the iron game to keep up with anyone. This week’s PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis will be his 38th major start, and he owns but one trophy (2016 U.S. Open). Johnson simply has too much game for that result. He was right there at the 2010 U.S. Open (led by three and shot 82 on Sunday), the 2010 PGA Championship (Whistling Straits/BunkerGate), the 2011 British Open (a back-nine 2-iron that sailed OB) and the 2015 U.S. Open (three-putting the 72nd hole). He led the U.S. Open through 36 holes this June … you get the idea. His stack of major misses is too tall.
But Johnson keeps moving forward, and in this game, that's a good thing. The past doesn’t bother him, doesn’t stick to him. When he handed away the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth at Chambers Bay in Washington, he was out playing fun golf with his future father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, and friends the next day. To Johnson, it’s all about what’s next. Right now, the PGA is next on the tee. It's a big ballpark, and he's a big-time player.
As for chasing greatness? Kudos to Johnson. Had he frittered away his immense talent, as many others have done, it would have been a shame. But he chased it hard. Good for him. For all the noise around him, he's the steady one, guns about to be drawn again. There are plenty of interesting players and many storylines to watch in these, the days of Tiger Woods’ return. Just don't forget about Dustin Johnson.
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffbabz62