Dustin Johnson’s final accension to world number one was kick-started by his superb US Open victory at Oakmont last year.
It was a moment of redemption and vindication for a man who took a self-imposed leave of absence to address “personal problems” amid rumours of failed drug tests at the end of 2014, and had suffered numerous missed chances and heartbreaks in golf’s biggest events.
The most recent of those setbacks had come 12 months earlier on the 18th green at Chambers Bay, but DJ has been virtually untouchable since securing his frst major.
He won the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational in his very next start and added a third win of the year at the BMW Championship in the FedEx Cup play-offs. Victory at the Genesis Open in February made him only the third player in history to win at least once in each of their first 10 seasons on the PGA Tour – Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the other two – and took him to the top of the world rankings for this first time.
Then he won the WGC – Mexico Championship in his first start as world number one and triumphed at the WGC – Dell Match Play to become the rst man to win all four World Golf Championship events.
He sat down exclusively with Golf World to discuss his journey from underachieving rebel to major champion, and how he plans to exceed his now- elevated expectations in 2017.
At what point did it sink in that you’d finally won a major?
I’ve watched highlights when they’ve been on TV and they [organisers from the USGA] sent me a DVD of the broadcast that I’ll probably watch at some point. The plane ride back was the rst chance I had time to sit back and relax. I was so tired that night I don’t even think we drank anything out of the trophy then. Monday night we had some beers out of it. Then we went to the Bahamas on Tuesday and just relaxed.
What was the difference at Oakmont?
Probably a combination of putts and the experience of the year before. You know, I didn’t feel like I did anything bad at Chambers Bay. I hit all the right shots. It’s not like I hit bad putts. Unfortunately, those greens were real bumpy and they were just difficult. Oakmont was a completely different kind of golf course, and I did everything really well.
There were never any times where I had to press at Oakmont. Making par was a very good score there and it sounds simple but I drove it in the fairway, hit it in the middle of the green and left myself a lot of uphill putts. I controlled my ball really well all week and just drove it really great.
What effect did your experience at Chambers Bay have on you?
Coming down the stretch at Chambers Bay I had to hit good shots. I had to go birdie-birdie to catch Jordan and I birdied 17 and hit two really good shots on 18 when I had to hit them. Unfortunately I three-putted, but I’d hit the right shot when I needed to when the pressure was on. That experience gave me a lot of confidence at Oakmont, especially down the stretch because it’s such a hard golf course.
Was Oakmont the perfect venue for your game?
The first time I saw the course was the Tuesday before the tournament and I just really liked it from the start. It’s just a good, difficult course. It’s not tricked up. The greens are difficult to read but the course is right there in front of you. Places like Oakmont, it’s so difficult and so important to hit it in the fairway, so if I drive it well I’m going to play well there. Driving it well in any US Open is important, especially there, and I just drove it great.
What was the first thought that crossed your mind when the penalty situation came up?
I was annoyed, but it really didn’t bother me that much or affect me. The first time they approached me on 5 and then again on the 12th tee I knew I didn’t do anything wrong so I wasn’t worried. We talked about it afterwards for a while but after a while I didn’t give a sh*t. I told them, ‘fine, whatever, can I just have the trophy?’
What did getting over that hump and securing a first major championship do for your confidence?
It definitely helped. Any time you can win a big tournament like that it’s just going to give you more con dence that you know you can do it. For me, it also confirmed that what I was working on was the right stuff. And it gave me a lot of belief – I always had belief – but it gave me that much more knowing that I was able to get it done in a major and in that pressure situation.
Was it a sense of relief?
Very relieved. Very relieved. I’m happy that I don’t have to answer those questions any more.
You took a leave of absence from golf in 2014, worked with a psychologist and made some other lifestyle changes. What role do you think all of that has played in your progression over the last couple of years?
I didn’t feel like I was playing up to my potential, so I needed to change something. Yeah, it was annoying because I knew I should be playing better and winning more, but I wasn’t. I became more dedicated in the gym at the beginning of 2016.
In terms of my game I worked a lot on my wedges, which were a lot better last year. I mean, I know I’m good enough to win and hopefully win more majors and win a lot more. I was underachieving so something needed to change and all of that of course helped. The leave of absence, you know, at the time it worked. I feel like I know myself pretty well and I knew I needed to do something and it worked.
How influential has it been having your brother Austin on the bag?
That’s been great having him on the bag. You spend so much time with a caddie, probably as much time or more time with them than anyone else, so you have to have someone you enjoy being around. So it’s really good having him on the bag because he’s my best friend.
I’m the boss, and he knows that, but it’s nice. We have a great relationship and know each other really well with him being my brother. And I figure if I’ve got to pay someone, I might as well keep it in the family.
Can you elaborate a little on your goals for this year?
I just keep trying to get better. I keep working on my wedge game and trying to improve that. That’s one thing I focused on a lot last year, and so I’m going to keep doing that – and short game and putting. If my wedges are good and I chip and putt well, I’m going to play pretty well most days.
I think that’s where the big difference was last year, that’s how I played a lot more consistently. My short game was pretty good, and you know, my wedge game was really good last year. It was the best year I’ve had consistently with the wedges. It’s kind of the same focus this year. Just keep trying to improve in those same areas.
You had 15 top 10s in 22 starts and missed just one cut last year. The three wins you claimed is a lot but do you look at it a little bit glass half-empty because you didn’t win more from that consistency, or half-full because you were in contention so many times?
I try to take the positive out of any situation. Yeah, I think I look at it as obviously a great year. I played very consistently and I finished top 10 a lot. I had a lot of chances to win a golf tournament. But obviously getting three wins, which is the most I’ve had since I’ve been on tour, was very good.
I had a lot of chances to win quite a few more. I just want to keep doing that. Keep trying to be consistent. Keep consistently being on the leaderboard on Sunday and having a chance to win golf tournaments.
Do you think winning a major title frees you up when you arrive at those big events now?
The best part about it is I’m not going there to get my first major. I’ve got one, so I’m not still trying to win one. I know what it takes. I know I’ve put myself in position a lot of times before, but just never really finished one off. So I feel like obviously I’ve got the game to contend in majors, but you’ve got to execute golf shots. But yeah, definitely, the mindset is a lot different, for sure.
Can you have an even better year this year?
We’ll see, but that’s the goal.
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