News & Opinion

Dustin Johnson’s legacy won’t be defined by majors

Dustin Johnson at 2020 PGA Championship
Dustin Johnson enters this week’s BMW Championship after having posted a runaway 11-stroke victory at the PGA Tour’s playoff opener.

Though he often lands on the wrong side of fortune, Johnson nonetheless has racked up 22 PGA Tour victories, with only 1 major title, and he’s a lock for golf’s version of immortality. Just don’t expect him to show much excitement about it.

Just when it looked for all the world as if Dustin Johnson was destined for a spot in the 54-Hole Hall of Fame, he made himself a lock for the big hall by obliterating a very healthy field in a manner made eye-popping by a prominent member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Johnson’s 30-under, 11-shot victory Sunday at the Northern Trust in the first of three FedEx Cup playoff events doesn’t make up for his failure to win the PGA Championship two weeks earlier at TPC Harding Park when he led after three rounds. Not even close.

But it doesn’t disqualify Johnson from being a great player, and there should be no debate. At 36, he’s one of the five best of his generation, despite having won only one major title. We need to get off this antiquated notion that majors are the one and only path to greatness.

This is not to undervalue major championships. They are the four biggest tournaments in the world, and should be treated as such. But these days, they are incredibly difficult to win. Way more people are capable of winning majors in 2020 than there were even in 2000 (see: Morikawa, Collin).

The golf gods giveth and they taketh away, and it seems, where it comes to majors, that Johnson too often has been on the wrong side of fortune. However, the stubborn among us insist that majors are the benchmark that measures a career. But there are only four chances per year – only three in 2020 – and with the number of highly talented major-worthy players seemingly increasing every year, the opportunity to win just doesn’t come around that often.

So, with the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont the only major victory on Johnson’s resume, the argument that he’s an underachiever and that one major isn’t enough to qualify for the World Golf Hall of Fame has holes in it.

He rarely wins tournaments with weak fields. Most of his 22 Tour victories have come against the best players. He has won six WGC titles, five playoff events and the Sentry Tournament of Champions twice. His first victory in 2020, the Travelers, was the third event after the restart, and the field was chock full of the game’s top players.

Some said that Johnson’s 11-under 60 in the second round of the Northern Trust was perhaps the most disappointing 60 in history. He shot 9-under 27 on the front nine and made birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 to get to 11 under through 11 holes. He seemed to be a lock for a sub-60 round, but it didn’t happen, which is why we’re talking about it.

But because he had seven holes in which to make a birdie or two to shoot 58 or 59 – or even lower – critics say it’s just another example of Johnson’s inability to close the deal in a big situation.

If he had gone 11 under over his last 11 holes to shoot 60, we’d be having an entirely different conversation. If you had asked Johnson that morning whether he’d take 60 and stay home, he would have flipped on the TV and ordered room service.

Because Johnson says little and agonizes even less, he is the least well-known of golf’s modern-day superstars. He reveals almost nothing when he talks with the media, and some wonder whether that’s by design or perhaps he just doesn’t have anything to say.

One of his best competitive traits is his infinitesimal memory when it comes to failure. He didn’t break 80 twice at the Memorial Tournament. Some players might spin around in panic mode, but Johnson appeared not to be concerned in the slightest. Two weeks later, he shot four rounds in the 60s at the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

Losing the PGA Championship to Morikawa appears not to have affected him. He shot 68 with the lead in the final round of a major. Instead of focusing on shortcomings, he believes that he simply was outplayed and there’s nothing to do about that.

The Northern Trust was his next start after the PGA, and if he held any lingering disappointment, it certainly didn’t show from his first round to his last putt that got him to 30 under and a dominant beatdown in a playoff event.

The BMW Championship is this week at Olympia Fields near Chicago (tee times), and Johnson is now the odds-on favorite to win the FedEx Cup at the Tour Championship next week. But even a $15 million bonus wouldn’t replace the Wanamaker Trophy for winning the PGA Championship.

However, there are two more majors in 2000: the U.S. Open is just three weeks away, and the Masters is in November. Besides, Johnson doesn’t seem to need to replace anything with anything. What he has and who he is, to all outward appearance, is perfectly fine with him.

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