All the clues were there when Dustin Johnson walked off the course Sunday evening with his best career finish at the Masters Tournament.
There was no disappointment that he couldn’t close a two-shot deficit on the last three holes, making double bogey on No. 17 to quash any chance. His first words after signing his scorecard telegraphed what was to come at the U.S. Open and beyond.
“I feel great,” Johnson said. “I think my game’s exactly where it needs to be. I feel like I’m playing really solid. I feel like I got control of my game. So I’m looking forward to the year for sure.”
Since last April, Johnson has won six tournaments, including his first major championship at Oakmont and three World Golf Championship events, and assumed control of the No. 1 ranking in the world with consecutive wins at Riviera, Mexico City and the Match Play in Austin. He won the Nicklaus (player of the year), Palmer (money list) and Nelson (scoring average) awards on the PGA Tour in 2016 in what he called his “dream season.”
In the two years since returning from a six-month sabbatical to address “personal challenges,” he has finally reached the full measure of his potential as arguably the most naturally gifted athlete on tour.
“I was always kind of top 10 for a long time, then starting last summer after I won the U.S. Open, just kind of propelled me a little bit, got a lot of confidence in the game,” Johnson said. “I felt like the things I’m working on are paying off. So now getting to No. 1 finally, obviously it’s a great honor and it’s just going to push me to continue to work harder.”
Johnson’s breakthrough U.S. Open victory came with the kind of drama that always seems to find him. After repeated fumbled major opportunities at Pebble Beach, Whistling Straits, Royal St. George’s and Chambers Bay, Johnson once again found himself at the front of the hunt on Sunday at Oakmont.
On the 12th tee, Johnson was confronted by USGA officials about a ruling seven holes earlier regarding his ball moving on the green despite him not addressing it or touching it with his club. He’d been cleared of wrongdoing by playing partner Lee Westwood and the walking rules official, but not in the judgment of those watching TV replays.
Under the threat of facing a retroactive penalty at the end of his round, Johnson played his last seven holes without fear, capping a four-shot rally to start the day to win going away by three strokes after the USGA assessed a penalty that Johnson no longer cared about.
“I was arguing with them because I still don’t believe that I did anything to make the golf ball move,” Johnson said. “But at that point I was ready to sign my scorecard and get my trophy, so I just said, give me the penalty, let’s go.”
A year after three-putting from 15 feet on the final hole to lose by a shot to Jordan Spieth, Johnson collected a U.S. Open trophy that had long seemed his destiny.
“After everything that I’ve been through in the majors – I’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times – to finally get that major win, it’s huge,” he said at Oakmont. “It gives me a lot more confidence going into every major to know that I can win. It’s a big monkey off my back for sure. I feel a lot lighter.”
One of Johnson’s greatest strengths – along with his long, supple swing that generates his immense power – is not letting regrets cloud his thinking. But having finally broken the glass ceiling does allow him to feed off positive thoughts without the occasional reminders from the media of past failures.
“The first one is definitely the hardest – well, it was for me,” he said. “So I feel like now that I’ve won one … I know I can do it. I believe I can do it. I mean, I’ve believed all along that I could do it, and I kept telling you all, it’s going to happen if I keep putting myself into position. Now that I know that, I’ve just got to keep putting myself in position to have a chance to win on the back nine on Sundays. I mean, yeah, I think it’s the beginning.”
That should benefit him when he returns to Augusta after tying for sixth and fourth the previous two years. His ability to move on helped him last year after making double bogey on No. 5 Sunday to fall six behind the lead. He rallied with birdies at Nos. 6, 8, 9, 13 and 15 to get within two strokes of Danny Willett before a double bogey at the 17th ended his comeback run.
“After making double on 5, I came back and played really well from there to the house,” he said. “Even missed quite a few short ones, not necessarily bad putts, just burning the edges. But I’m definitely pleased with the way I played. I’m doing all the right things. I hit it in all the right spots, I hit some great shots.”
Johnson will return to Augusta playing the best golf of his career. He’s driving it straighter and hitting his wedges better than ever, two elements that bode well for him at Augusta National. His first real experience in the mix last year at the Masters in seven career starts only fuels the new No. 1’s enthusiasm to return.
“I mean the atmosphere was great, had a lot of fun and looking forward to next (time),” he said. “I feel like I’m getting better each year, so I’m looking forward to it.”