Dustin Johnson was sensational in spearheading the United States’ Ryder Cup victory at Whistling Straits, writes GARY LEMKE.
After a couple of celebratory drinks – vodka and ice, beer and champagne (not all in the same glass) – the DJ entered the house, ready to continue the party. One of the assembled media, seeing the mood Dustin Johnson was in, asked whether he could still out-party his younger teammates.
Alongside and behind him were his 11 compatriots who had brought golf’s most treasured silverware, the Ryder Cup, back to American shores. They had done so in crushing fashion, dominating Europe from the first morning to close out an emphatic 19-9 victory. One of those players was four-time Major champion Brooks Koepka.
He tilted his head back, looked across to Justin Thomas, and smiled. He’d seen this side of DJ before and knew what was coming. ‘Abso-effing-lutely. Next question,’ Johnson replied.
In an instant the world saw the other side of Johnson, a former world No 1 and two-time Major champion. Suddenly, in all our ‘dream fourball’ scenarios we rubbed out one player to make room for DJ. And that would be to include holes 1-18, and then the 19th.
For too long Johnson has been described as one-dimensional and boring.
USA Today declared in 2019: ‘DJ has had a legendary career, having won at least one tournament in each of the past 12 years. He can hit 400-yard drives and also dominate with a wedge in his hand. He can win Majors, he has six WGC titles, which is second only to Tiger Woods. Oh, and he’s engaged to Paulina Gretzky.
‘And yet somehow, despite all of that, DJ is one of the most boring dominant players to ever play the sport. How can that be? It’s all about how he carries himself on the course. He generally has the energy of someone sitting alone at the licensing department without a phone or book to look at.’
In 2018, when Johnson won the FedEx St Jude Classic to ascend to No 1 in the world, Golf Channel’s Justin Ray tweeted: ‘There are now 30 players to win 18 PGA Tour events including a Major since World War II ended. Of those 30, 28 are in the Hall of Fame and the other two are Tiger and Dustin Johnson.’
The report of the victory came with this line: ‘Johnson barely broke a smile or his stride as he shrugged and gave his brother Austin, who is also his caddie, a tiny fist bump.’
Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel once wrote that when he interviewed Johnson, ‘A list of talking points Johnson has written down on a white sheet of paper sits in front of him. They include family, simple life and dedication. Between spits of dip, he delivers his lines with conviction.’
Golf Channel’s Vince Cellini once asked Johnson what has become a stock delivery for media when talking to sports stars. It’s that, ‘What was going through your mind when …’ question. Probably one of the most memorable replies to that came from British motorcycling legend Barry Sheene when he was asked that by the BBC in the 1970s. ‘Your arse, if you’re going fast enough,’ he shot back.
Johnson’s reply was less dramatic, when asked what goes through his mind when he moves through a shot. ‘That’s a good question,’ he said, ‘because I have no idea. Hopefully, it’s not really doing anything. When I’m actually hitting it, I’m not really thinking about anything. Never thought about it much, though.’
Afterwards, cruelly, Cellini wrote: ‘Dustin Johnson is the Gronk of golf, not a busy thought in that noggin. No head, no headache.’
His coach, Claude Harmon III, had a different opinion. ‘His attitude is the best in the game. Other than Jack and Tiger, you can make an argument that he has the best mind in the history of golf.’
Harmon’s father, Butch, had this to say: ‘We say that DJ is sly like a fox. If you listen to his interviews, he doesn’t give you much – a lot of yes or no answers. That’s done on purpose so that he doesn’t have to do a lot of interviews. He’s smart that way.’
After playing with Johnson for the first two rounds of the 2020 Masters, which Johnson won by five shots, Rory McIlroy described the American’s approach as, ‘See ball, hit ball. See putt, hole putt, go to the next.’ (That’s a good thing, by the way.)
Dr Bob Rotella, a famed sport psychologist, said: ‘I have spent my life teaching people to not think, as crazy as that sounds. Too many thoughts, especially in golf, can be paralysing. Dustin has a wonderful ability to be very interested in what he’s doing but to underreact to everything. He never panics. Nothing seems to bother him.’
(That’s also a good thing.)
‘When he hits one in the water or out of bounds I’ll ask him afterward if he wants to go hit balls, and he’ll say, “Nah, not really, I’m good. Didn’t really hit it that bad today,”’ Claude Harmon told the media earlier this year. ‘He’ll shoot over par and say, “I made one bad swing today. But I also made a lot of good swings.” Most players are all caught up in their score, in the bad things. Dustin is able to remove that from his thinking.’
And whatever you might think of Johnson, he is the one having the last laugh. This was a different Ryder Cup for him. At the age of 37 he was the oldest member of the 12-man United States team, which had an average age of 29. That alone should scare the European captain before the 2023 event at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club outside Rome. Because these Americans, who had eight of the top-10 golfers in the men’s World Ranking at the end of September, are starting to dominate the sport.
Johnson, who seemed to like the mix of drinks and the microphone after official proceedings had been concluded at Whistling Straits, had volunteered insight into the USA approach into the Sunday singles. He said they had entrusted Scottie Scheffler to take down Europe’s world No 1 Jon Rahm, and it was a job well done, with the rookie winning 4 & 3. While he was talking, Koepka, who is a close friend of DJ’s, started to smile again. It spoke to the competitive streak that burns in Johnson’s belly, in complete contrast to the perception of him. You can just imagine the pre-Sunday US team talk, Johnson – as the elder statesman – motivating Scheffler to go out there and take down the world No 1.
Johnson himself was on fire all week, completing a 5-0-0 record to join Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson (both 1967), Larry Nelson (1979) and Francesco Molinari (2018)
‘This is the first team where I was the oldest,’ he said. ‘On the other teams I felt like I was a younger guy. A little different dynamic. Starting the week, if you had told me I was going to go 5-0-0, I probably would have said you were crazy. I didn’t think I was going to play five matches.
‘We had a lot of young guys but it didn’t feel like they were because they have all played well in such big moments and tournaments. They didn’t play like they were rookies. Like Xander Schauffele and all of us have all said all week, the one thing we all have in common is we hate to lose. That’s how we came together and we all played like it.’
Indeed, the momentum really does look to be with the United States as all roads lead to Rome in 2023.
In terms of the World Ranking at the end of September, the two non-Americans in the top 10 were Rahm and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen. From 11-20 the non-Americans were a Mexican, a Japanese, a Norwegian, a Northern Irishman and an Englishman. In fact, in that top 20 there were only four Ryder Cup Europeans and three International golfers eligible for The Presidents Cup.
It’s hard to see a chink in this American armour. Collin Morikawa is already a two-time Major champion at the age of 24, while Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Jordan Spieth have also all won Majors, as has 20th-ranked Patrick Reed, who was overlooked for Whistling Straits.
To think that the average age of these dozen Americans is under 30 is a scary thought for their Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup opponents in the foreseeable future.
‘I woke up and I was trying to tell the guys, “Let’s get to 20 points,”’ Patrick Cantlay said on the Sunday evening. ‘Because this is going to be the next era of Ryder Cup teams for the US side. We’ve got a lot of young guys and I think they’ll be on teams for a long time, and I wanted to send a message.’
Apart from their oldest player leading by example, they also have the man who is the talk of the sport, DeChambeau. He turned 28 in September but is a one-man walking billboard for the sport, witnessed by his teeing up at the World Long Drive Championships after wowing fans at Whistling Straits.
Here is a man who not only drives for show, but can also putt for dough.
On the first hole in the Sunday singles, a 373-yard par four, the 2020 US Open champion drove the green – the front edge was 340 yards away – leaving a 41-foot putt for eagle. DeChambeau walked off the tee box with his putter in the air. He drained the putt.
Then you had the brilliance of Spieth, who is only 28 and a three-time Major champion but who hasn’t won a Major since the 2017 Open Championship. His flop shot in the Friday afternoon session on the par-three 17th hole was every bit as bonkers as DeChambeau driving the 1st green on the Sunday.
‘I hit a 52-degree because a 60 might have gone over the back of my head and you know, just tried to flick it right underneath and hit it as hard as I could, as high as I could,’ Spieth said of his moment of magic from thick grass on a greenside hill. ‘It’s kind of one of those shots you practise as a kid for fun and you don’t ultimately want to have it. And the chances of it going there, you could roll a thousand balls off the green and it’s not going to stay where it was.’
Although it was early days at the Ryder Cup, it pointed to what was unfolding. An unstoppable juggernaut trampling over every European ambition. And, at the front of it was a man as unflappable as the game has ever seen. Except when he’s had a few drinks, that is.
STATS THAT TELL THE STORY
- Dustin Johnson became the fifth Ryder Cup player to go 5-0-0.
- It’s the first time the US has won two consecutive times at home since 1983.
- The six American rookies combined for a record of 14-4-3, including three who went undefeated – Collin Morikawa (3-0-1), Patrick Cantlay (3-0-1) and Scottie Scheffler (2-0-1).
- Nine of the 12 Americans had winning records. Those who didn’t: Jordan Spieth (1-2-1), Harris English (1-2-0) and Tony Finau (1-2-0).
- The 19-9 win was the largest margin of victory in the modern history of the event. It’s the third Ryder Cup win for the Americans this century (3-7) and the second in as many tries on home soil.
- For the first time in modern history the Americans went through a Ryder Cup without losing a single session.
– This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!