When Dustin Johnson eagled the 18th hole last Sunday at the FedEx St. Jude Classic to walk off the Memphis golf course with a tournament win and a no. 1 world ranking, it somehow wasn’t the shot itself that stood out the most. Johnson’s nine-iron attempt from the intermediate rough 171 yards away landed a couple of feet from the hole, bounced twice, and neatly rolled in, giving Johnson a six-stroke lead for the victory. It was a doozy of a shot—which is what made Johnson’s understated response to it feel so over the top.
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. He looked like an NBA player going performatively catatonic while being mobbed by his teammates after a three, or an expressionless food blogger chewing a bite of hot pepper for clicks. The truth, as Johnson later told reporters, was that he knew it was a “really good shot” based on the reaction from the crowd, but that, with the sun in his eyes, he didn’t immediately realize just how good. Which is fitting, because sometimes you could say much the same thing about how Johnson himself is viewed.
“There are now 30 players to win 18 PGA Tour events including a major since World War II ended,” wrote Golf Channel’s Justin Ray on Twitter after the St. Jude. “Of those 30, 28 are in the Hall of Fame and the other two are Tiger and Dustin Johnson.” In January, when Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, it made him just the third PGA Tour player to win a title in each of his first 11 seasons; Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the other two. When Johnson briefly lost the no. 1 world ranking to Justin Thomas in May, Johnson had held the position for more than a year, the fifth-longest streak in tour history. (Thomas poked fun at the end of his own short reign, telling reporters that the last time he wasn’t no. 1, Alex Ovechkin still lacked a Stanley Cup and Rickie Fowler was not yet engaged.)
“I think my game gets enough respect,” Johnson said on Tuesday at a press conference in advance of the U.S. Open, and he had a point: He is, after all, the betting-odds favorite to win the tournament, which is being held on a lengthy Shinnecock Hills course well-suited to his power-game strengths. On Thursday, he’ll tee off alongside Woods and Thomas, the most hotly anticipated group at the Open. But ever since Johnson turned pro in 2007, he has mostly been defined as golf’s bad boy or as golf’s big hitter, reputations that, however earned, have also grown incomplete. The goal from here is simpler, if not necessarily easier: just be golf’s best.
Earlier this year, in an instructional video produced by TaylorMade, Johnson casually unleashed a monster of a sample drive. “Best one so far, that one?” asked one of the other pros in the video, trying to stay cool. “Yeah,” Johnson said, not seeming particularly impressed. “I mean, that’s just a stock, smooth, fairway-finder.” He sounded like he was describing a generic type of razor, not an off-the-cuff shot with a 311-yard carry.
Johnson’s name is synonymous with these sorts of ridiculous distances from the tee, and not just with his driver; in Memphis, he hit an iron 307 yards. But while Johnson may have one of the most powerful drives in the game, he’s far from the only one who can crush the ball. And this has presented challenges to professional golf, which has seen some of its once-mighty courses taken down several notches by particularly long hitters who are able to bypass their designed features. (Augusta National has tweaked its course multiple times over the years to try to stay one step ahead of the players.) One proposed solution—one that Jack Nicklaus says he’s been in support of for decades—is to have the best golfers in the world play with “reduced distance golf balls” engineered not to travel so far.
“I would tell them to go out and watch a golf tournament,” Johnson said on Tuesday when asked about what he thinks when he hears about these sorts of conversations. “I definitely don’t hit it too far and the game is not easy, that’s for sure.” At last year’s U.S. Open, the conventional wisdom had been that the Erin Hills course would be a great one for long hitters. It was for the winner, Brooks Koepka. “But for me,” said Johnson, who missed the cut, “it wasn’t.” He stressed that this year, at Shinnecock, it would be important to play well from the irons. Just because he can “smash balls like Aaron Judge taking batting practice,” as The New York Times once put it, doesn’t mean that every attempt will be a home run.
Actually, there’s something about Johnson’s brand of striking physicality and acute dominance that can come across less like a baseball star slugger and more like an ace starting pitcher. Perhaps it’s the way he patrols the grass with what Golf Digest calls his “patented panther strut.” NBC’s David Feherty described Johnson’s gait as like that of a Clint Eastwood character who “has a crooked gun belt and a toothpick in his mouth,” while his coworker Peter Jacobsen likened it to Russell Crowe, as Maximus, brandishing a sword and yelling “Are you not entertained?” Perhaps it’s the way he torques his wrists when he swings, as if he’s delivering a putaway pitch. Perhaps it’s the way Johnson has, in both his career and his personal life, been the equivalent of a guy dyin’ out there on the mound, his game sliding away, his mistakes piling up in plain sight.
In 2012, he withdrew from the Masters after “tweak[ing]” an old back injury “lifting a jet ski,” according to a statement from his agent at the time. He took the second half of 2014 away from golf to “seek professional help for personal challenges,” a hiatus that, according to Golf.com’s Michael Bamberger, may have stemmed from repeated failed drug tests over the course of several years. When he came back, he sat down with Sports Illustrated and explained that he knew he was making real progress when he turned down shots at the baby shower for his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky. Reporter Pete Thamel wrote that when he interviewed Johnson, the golfer had a list in front of him with talking points that included “FAMILY, SIMPLE LIFE, and DEDICATION.” Thamel wrote: “Between spits of dip, he delivers his lines with conviction.”
In 2010, a bizarre rules gaffe involving a bunker prevented Johnson from competing for the PGA Championship trophy. In 2015, Johnson appeared to be cruising to his first major win at the U.S. Open in Chambers Bay when he imploded on the 18th hole, three-putting to let the tournament slip from his grasp as onlookers, including his future father-in-law Wayne Gretzky, watched in horror. And even when Johnson finally won the U.S. Open in 2016, he did so despite being docked a stroke after his ball moved on the fifth green. He is a physical marvel and also a volatile human. He is unfathomably mentally resilient, and he is also a guy who in 2017 withdrew from the Masters due to what he said was a fall down some stairs. He is viscerally compelling not only because his ceiling is so high, but also because his floor is so low.
Johnson’s grouping for the first round of the U.S. Open on Thursday feels a little bit like a showcase of golf’s future, past, and present. Thomas, 25, is part of a rising generation of stars that vacation together, post their pranks and bets and fits on Instagram, and grew up watching YouTube videos of Woods. Woods, in turn, is at 42 a man who is now in the season of life in which he parks his 155-foot yacht, called Privacy, near the golf course and stays there to avoid traffic. Johnson fits somewhere in the middle; as the Golf Channel’s Ray pointed out, at 33, he is now older than Woods was when Woods last won a major in 2008.
Three weeks ago, Woods spent two days on site scouting out the particulars of this year’s Shinnecock course, which features wider fairways but harrowing links-style roughs. Johnson, who has never played Shinnecock, chose not to arrive any earlier than usual. “To me,” he said when asked about the conditions in his practice round, “the course played exactly how it should. I haven’t seen it any other way.” (His fiancée, Paulina, appeared to somehow have made the trip out to Long Island via Trump helicopter.) At another point during the press conference, asked to describe the similarities and differences between him and Thomas, Johnson replied: “We’re both very good golfers; our height.” (Thomas is about a half-foot shorter than Johnson.) These were typical Johnson responses: somewhere between bored and koan-like. “It doesn’t really matter what you do up here,” he said in the swing video sponsored by TaylorMade, waving his hand around his head, “as long as you can hit consistently at the bottom.” (Around the country, those who make their livings in the pricey, often scammy field of golf instruction no doubt chuckled nervously at this cheap advice.) “It’s not rocket science,” Johnson said when the The New York Times asked him about having his brother as a caddy. “You know, it’s just golf, at the end of the day.”
“Was thinking,” wrote former Golf Channel host Vince Cellini on Twitter, “Dustin Johnson is the Gronk of golf, not a busy thought in that noggin. No head, no headache.” A pretty rude sentiment, phrased this way, but in reality it also wasn’t too far off from a telling exchange that took place at the press conference when Johnson was asked what his mind does as he moves through a shot.
“That’s a good question,” Johnson 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 really thought about it, though.” Here, the moderator jumped in. “Don’t start,” he warned. “I’m not going to,” Johnson assured him. For now, what he’s doing is working. That much he can see, even when the sun gets in his eyes.