The Sky Is the Limit for Dustin Johnson After Major Breakthrough at the US Open

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The Sky Is the Limit for Dustin Johnson After Major Breakthrough at the US Open
David Cannon/Getty Images
Dustin Johnson finally gets the thrill of lifting a major championship trophy.

The future is looking brighter for Dustin Johnson now that he has dumped the title of “Mr. Almost” and donned the mantle of U.S. Open champion. And it won’t be at all surprising if golf sees him hoist a few more trophies at majors in the next few years.

For starters, he’ll never again be dogged by claims that he’s the finest golfer on the planet to never win the big one. That will change the tone of every future press conference and spare him from what has been an eternally echoing question.

It will also move the focus on Johnson to what he can do with that monster swing, rather than what he hasn’t done.

And if I had to pick another great golfer whom Johnson most resembles at this moment, I’d pick another big hitter, Phil Mickelson—the 33-year-old version who won his first major at the 2004 Masters.

Back then, Lefty also was enduring slurs and slams from the public and the media for taking too long to claim his first major.

But once Mickelson was fitted for his first green jacket, the pressure went away and the victories in majors started to roll his way. The next year, Mickelson claimed the PGA Championship, and in 2006, he notched his second Masters.

That quite likely is the same high-flying trajectory Johnson’s career will take now.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Dustin Johnson got to celebrate Father's Day in a very special way with his son.

The truth is that it really hasn’t taken Johnson, who turns 32 next week, all that long to break through at a major.

Yes, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth got theirs when they were barely of legal drinking age, but that’s hardly a fair standard to impose on every golfer. Bubba Watson won his first Masters at 33 and added a second one two years later. Payne Stewart was 32 when he won the 1989 PGA Championship and nailed a U.S. Open title two years later. And Vijay Singh didn’t get the first of his three majors until he reached the ripe old age of 35.

The way Johnson won Sunday should silence anyone who still wants to theorize he can’t handle pressure. For the final seven holes, the cloud of not knowing whether he’d be penalized a stroke—because his ball moved on No. 5 as he prepared to putt—hung over him.

Is there anything anywhere in sports to compare to that? Was his lead one stroke or two? Imagine anyone in a team sport looking up at the scoreboard and not knowing if the math is correct.

Yet the look of calm never left Johnson’s bearded face. He was as stoic as the image of Abe Lincoln on a $5 bill.

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And now, instead of being that guy who’s never come through in the clutch, Johnson gains entry to the most elite group in golfing today. The so-called Big Three of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Spieth will have to add a fourth chair and make room for Johnson.

Johnson’s power and talents have been so abundantly apparent for so long that television analysts have stayed on his bandwagon despite his troubles at majors.

In a February article on Golf.com, NBC’s Brandel Chamblee stood by his prediction that Johnson is “going nowhere but straight to the Hall of Fame.” And NBC’s David Feherty said Johnson’s ability to get through the aftermath of failures would eventually get him to the top.

"But he's got so much talent and has got so much time left," Feherty said. "I think that, and his attitude is wonderful as well. He's one of those guys that just it seems to run off his back. I have no doubts about Dustin Johnson that he's going to win and win big tournaments, majors."

My optimism about Johnson’s future also isn’t purely in regard to his getting the majors monkey off his back. Golf’s calendar also may do him some favors.

This year’s PGA Championship will be played at Baltusrol in New Jersey, a course whose affection for heavy-duty slammers is symbolized by its 650-yard 17th hole, one of the longest anywhere.

By winning at Oakmont Country Club, Johnson also has proved he can withstand the mental and physical drudgery of a legendary course that is onerously difficult every step of the way, from the first tee box to the 18th green.

Shinnecock Hills in New York, home to the 2018 U.S. Open, is comparable, ranked America’s fifth-hardest course by Golf Digest. So is Bethpage Black, site of the 2019 PGA Championship, which Golf Digest ranks as America’s seventh toughest.

And with his world suddenly so much brighter, Johnson might even feel great when he checks the future homes of majors and sees that Pebble Beach will host the 2019 U.S. Open.

That picturesque course is where Johnson won his second career PGA Tour title, at the 2009 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which he defended in 2010.

But with regard to Johnson, Pebble Beach is better known as the place where he crumbled at the 2010 U.S. Open. He had a three-stroke lead after 54 holes but then imploded with a final-round 82 and finished tied for eighth.

That was the first time Johnson was genuinely in the thick of a hunt for one of golf’s biggest prizes, and it’s the first stop on the timeline of his many disappointments in majors.

Sunday, one year after his U.S. Open calamity at Chambers Bay, Johnson altered the perception of how he handles golf’s toughest test.

Now, with that first major secured, it’s a good bet he can’t wait to revisit Pebble Beach and all the other ghostly places of his past, and rewrite some more history.

 

Tom Weir covered several majors as a columnist for USA Today.

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