At 6-foot-4, Dustin Johnson casts one of the longest shadows on the PGA Tour. Few, if any, can see the top of his sponsored hat. But heading into the Masters this week, even as the world no. 1, Johnson finds himself standing in shadows much bigger than his own.
At 33, Johnson’s place between the old has-beens and the up-and-comers makes the popular narratives elude him like an iron shot bending around a tree. Unlike Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth, he’s not a vision for the future, and unlike Tiger, whose broad-shouldered, Nike-clad shadow looms large at Augusta this weekend, he’s not a nostalgia of the past.
The biggest shadow over Johnson this weekend is the grounds themselves. Through the years, Augusta National has virtually turned him into Sisyphus; each year that he’s played there he’s improved, but still can’t seem to push the rock over the mountain. Now, a year after being in the Masters limelight for all the wrong reasons, Johnson finds himself trying to outlast the shadow of both his past and his main competitor. The good news is he’s playing the best golf of his career.
On paper, Johnson is impossible to overlook. He’s had four top-10 finishes in seven events since October, and he’s one of the three odds-on favorites to win the Masters. He won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January with four sub-70 rounds, bolstered by the longest drive on tour this season—a 433-yard scorcher he nearly holed—and an 8-under dominant final round. And he’s been no. 1 for 59 straight weeks now—the seventh-longest time at the top spot in PGA history.
The casual fan may have trouble seeing how golf requires athleticism, but all you have to do is watch Johnson at the tee, and it’s impossible not to see his strength as a tool. Putts may be the most thrilling part of the game to watch because they signify completion, but Johnson makes his tee shots—those swings that get the ball flying like a Star Trek ship at warp speed (in his case for hundreds and hundreds of yards)—must-see TV.
With Johnson’s height, the driver sits as comfortably in his hand as a bat does in Mike Trout’s. They both control their instrument, not the other way around. Much like a baseball player, Trout or otherwise, uses their wrists and forearms to smack an opposite-field home run or turn on an inside pitch, Johnson is one of the most physical golfers on tour and he uses that to his full advantage. His stroke is like an automated slingshot that recoils longer, faster, stronger than nearly anyone on tour. When done right, it appears effortless, a product of perfect posture, and a repetition that’s machine-like. The sound it generates is deafening. And because of the distance he gets, it also changes how he plays the game compared to the field—he’s able to shrink the course, setting off a chain reaction that helps his short game, which in turn, helps his putting.
“I’m hitting the shots that I’m seeing,” Johnson said in a recent Golf Digest interview. “It’s just more my cut’s starting to come back where I’m hitting it with irons and with the driver. Where every shot’s starting to cut again.”
Three days after that story was published, Johnson was at the Sentry tournament in Hawaii, playing the final round through the rain, launching driver bombs left and right. What he had said bore itself out in his play; he was hitting the shots that he was seeing. And he was talking to them too.
“Oh, don’t hook too much,” he’d tell a ball in the air. “Stay there.” Most of the time, the ball would listen.
Something I’ve always loved about watching golf is the silence. It’s not that I enjoy the quiet necessarily, but it’s more that I’m always intrigued by what ends up filling that void. There are the hushed tones of Jim Nantz or Dan Hicks, the quips and yells from the gallery, the chirps of the birds, the wind. But some of the best moments are when the player himself speaks loudly enough for the sound to be picked up by microphones. It’s raw and honest in a way that most recorded, collated soundbites in sports like basketball or football aren’t.
In watching Johnson’s final round at the Sentry, his chatter throughout struck me as endearing, educational even. It was like he was calling play-by-play or putting together a director’s commentary of his own play. The way he told an already-struck ball to “Go, go, go,” or quietly yelled “C’mon” between gritted teeth felt ordinary. But when he’d hit an errant iron shot and punctuate the swoosh of the club with an “Oh, golly, I pulled the crap out of that” or a “Man, that thing got chewed up by the wind” after looking straight at the camera, it felt sincere.
Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the lead, or maybe he just felt talkative—whatever the reason, Johnson’s verbal quips felt refreshing, something that, at least to this extent, hadn’t been seen from him before. The Masters may be a different kind of beast that stifles that, but the signs he’s given us—not just his stellar play but his overall attitude—bode well heading into the biggest tournament of his career. It’s all coming together at the perfect time.
Johnson’s success has been unignorable even if it has lacked the splash of Tiger’s return, the youthfulness of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, or even the affability of Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson. The 2016 PGA Player of the Year is one of three golfers ever to win a title in each of his first 11 seasons on tour. The other two are Jack Nicklaus and Tiger. He’s also one of just three players ever to have a total of 17 wins before turning 34. The other two are Mickelson and Tiger. He belongs in rarified air because he’s earned his spot there.
But in golf, that many wins can only mean so much when the victories aren’t majors, or even just the major. Though he was able to get the monkey off his back in 2016 by winning the U.S. Open, his single majors success still doesn’t feel commensurate with how good he’s proven to be everywhere outside the sport’s most notable events.
From 2009 to 2011, Johnson finished outside the top-30 each year at the Masters. After not playing in 2012 due to a jet-ski-related injury, Johnson came back and tied for 13th in 2013 only to miss the cut the following year before announcing a leave from the sport due to “personal challenges.” In 2015, he came back and made history in the tournament’s second round, becoming the first golfer to ever post three eagles in a Masters round (he ended up tying for sixth), and he left a chance on the table in 2016, when he got within two shots of the leader, Danny Willett, in the final round before double-bogeying at 17th to squander any chance at a win. He tied for fourth.
When Johnson nabbed the top spot in the world last February after winning the Genesis Open, he looked primed to take that edge into April. Then, things got weird. Twenty-four hours before he was set to tee off at Augusta, it was reported that Johnson fell down some stairs at his rental home and injured his back. Johnson tried to give it a go Thursday morning, but he didn’t get a single official shot in. He withdrew.
“[I was] obviously playing probably the best golf of my career,” Johnson said about the incident in a recent Golf Digest interview.
Last year’s tournament was supposed to be Johnson’s coronation, a manifestation that Johnson belonged as the top golfer in the world, but also proof that he could win multiple majors, including the biggest one. Instead, it was another setback at Augusta.
For the first eight years of his career, Johnson was compelling to watch in a major not just because of his ability to smash a ball off the tee, but also because you’d be getting one of two things: an implosion or his first win. Before the title finally came in 2016, his major misfortunes included three bogeys on the back nine of the 2015 U.S. Open’s final round, the unlucky grounded bunker at the PGA Championship in 2010 that cost him a spot in a playoff, and the late-added penalty that nearly cost him the Open in 2016. Even when he won, the controversy of the delayed infraction nearly overshadowed the accomplishment.
But, barring another penalty incident or another mysterious injury, this year’s Masters is set up to become Johnson’s true crowning—even if all the storylines seem to point away from him. The way he’s playing, the shadow of his past failures appears to be in his rearview mirror. The ones in front of him though, will take some work to overcome. But imagine if he does: A Masters win with all eyes on the players around him would feel befitting of Johnson’s career arc so far. The golf world isn’t centered around him, but come Sunday, maybe it will be.