2018 Open Championship: Dustin Johnson talks exclusively to TG about what he enjoys about links golf, why he wants the wind to blow, and how he gets ready for The Open...
If you were looking for a current golfer to encapsulate the characteristics of the "all- American kid", Dustin Johnson would be a good fit.
Athletic and bursting with machismo. Unwittingly confident and close to horizontally laid back. Languid in movement and thought. Perhaps most of all, not widely recognised as having a worldly outlook on life.
While Johnson often travels to the Middle East to play a tour event (with a hefty appearance fee), his tournaments outside the States are otherwise limited to WGC events in Asia and an annual trip to play in our Open. His game, too, matches the personality; long, long, and then a bit longer, Johnson epitomises this era's predominant "bomb and gouge" philosophy.
So even if his improved wedge play was the factor that took him from nearly man to Major winner and world number one (see page 51), the 33-year-old is not known for finesse and creativity.
It goes without saying, then, that he is obviously going to hate the intricacies, quirks and often downright maddening aspects that are omnipresent aspects of our Open Championship. Wrong.
In fact, you couldn't be more wrong. In so many different respects, Johnson and The Open is in fact an unlikely, but burgeoning love affair.
Since his Open debut in 2009, when he missed the cut at Turnberry, he has played all four rounds in his subsequent eight championships – including a remarkable tally of five top-15 finishes in those eight years.
He came closest to victory at Sandwich in 2011 when, playing in the final group at along side Darren Clarke, he was just two strokes off the lead as he stood over his ball in the 14th fairway.
It was a par 5 waiting to be gobbled up by the then 27-year-old, and apply pressure on Clarke. But he sent his 2-iron sailing out of bounds, leading to a double-bogey that allowed the Northern Irishman to cruise to victory by three shots.
It was a painful lesson, and not his last. But when Johnson returns to Britain for The Open in July, he does so as a Major champion and one of the favourites for the Claret Jug. His record, indeed, suggests he perhaps ought to be the favourite.
But as much as all those top 15s, it is his affection for the foibles of the championship and of links golf in general that make him an outstanding candidate for Carnoustie 2018. Be prepared to be surprised...
Do you recall the details of your first experience of links golf?
I know it was at St Andrews Bay (now named Fairmont St Andrews), which is just down the street from the Old Course. I think I shot a few under for my total, but we played in really bad weather, I know that. It was windy and rainy the whole time. It was a college event. We came over here as a team and played the Torrance.
Did you take to it quickly?
I've always enjoyed playing links golf. I like tough conditions, windy conditions, trying to play all different kinds of shots. It's something I've enjoyed since I started playing in Britain. Playing links golf is all about feel and that is kind of how I play, so it has always appealed to me. I liked it when I played it in the Walker Cup, too, and thought I did pretty well at it.
Do you enjoy the feeling of striking the ball from firm, sandy turf as opposed to the lush surfaces you see usually?
I do. It's different, but we play on different surfaces every week. You just get over there and hit a few shots and you are back into it. For sure, it doesn't take long. I don't play any different in Britain compared to how I play over in Abu Dhabi or America.
A lot of times you are trying to land the ball a little short of the green maybe; but it's still a certain number you're trying to hit it too, it doesn't matter if that number happens to be 10 yards short of the green or 20 yards from the pin.
Does that make it more fun than a normal parkland-style course?
Oh, it's a lot of fun. We don't get to play it very much, so I enjoy it when I do. You've got to hit so many different shots. You've got to cut it, draw it, hit it high, hit it low... you've just got to really control your golf ball. That's the key over there. You hit a lot of shots that you would never hit in the States.
I can remember shots where it's only like 170 yards, but I hit a 4-iron and rolled it the whole way to the pin. You see the balls of the guys in front and maybe one of your playing partners doing something on the ground and you adapt; you just roll it up all the way onto the green.
Have you learned the art of playing links golf over time?
I remember a practice round with Phil (Mickelson) and he hit a low running shot, and I'm like "that's kind of interesting – why would you do that?" And he said to me that sometimes the wind gets blowing really hard sideways, it's too hard to control the ball. So I used it the next day on that same hole and made a par.
Controlling your flight is the key isn't it?
Yeah, I think I do a good job with my ball flight, controlling it, I've usually done pretty well controlling my distance with my irons; I think it's definitely key on a links to hit the ball the right distance. I mean, sometimes it's hard and you have no chance of hitting it the right distance. But if you keep it on the correct side of the holes, where you need to, then most of the time you have a pretty easy chance to make par.
Is your length negated on a windy links?
Well, it's nice to be able to hit 3-irons off the tee, because you're trying to keep it out of the bunkers, because obviously links golf is all about placing your tee shot in a certain spot. The rough is are not too bad, it is keeping out of the bunkers that tells you if you will have a good week or not. They are the defence of a links. So my 3-iron, I think, is a lot easier to hit to where I want it than somebody hitting 3-wood or driver. So that's definitely an advantage. I can hit more drivers, but I just choose not to.
Does strong wind even make putting difficult?
Yeah, it's really hard. You can get it around the hole, but it's really hard to make the short putts when it's really windy. When you've got a right-to-left putt with the wind off the left and you're playing it to break left to right, it's kind of tough.
How do you prepare for your annual return to links golf?
I try to come over every year a little bit early. I usually go to Dublin and hang out and play. It is always a nice weekend, just hanging out with the boys and playing some golf. I have played Portmarnock probably six or seven times – the first time I played it was when we came over for the Walker Cup – and The Island I've played twice. They're both great courses and I think it's definitely good preparation to come here. I have also played Royal Dublin.
What is your verdict on Carnoustie, which unlike many of today's top guys, you've played before?
Yeah, I've played the Dunhill Links twice so I've had some experience of it then. It's a good, challenging golf course. Obviously for the British it will be a little more challenging. The rough will be a little higher than for the Dunhill, but I am definitely looking forward to it.
You nearly won at Royal St George's. But it is a course that not all the pros like; are you one of those?
I like playing links no matter what the course is. It's different, but everybody has to play the same course. So I don't think there is a reason to complain about it or not like it.
Do you enjoy playing in front of British crowds? Is there a different vibe to elsewhere?
I like it, I really do. They're very respectful, they know the game, they understand when you hit a 4-iron into a green and land it short and run it in that you meant to do that. They appreciate those sort of shots. They understand that side of the game a little better. Obviously they enjoy watching links golf, and in The Open, hitting the green is a good shot so it's good fun. I feel like I have a lot of fans over here.
You must hate our weather though...
Well I don't always enjoy it maybe, but when you go over there you expect to play in sh*t weather. I want the conditions to be tough. I don't want go over there and play when it's sunny and no wind, I can't stand playing links golf with no wind. I'd rather it blow 30mph wind, I like when it blows hard over there (his best Open finish, T2, came at a rainy and blustery Royal St George's).
It's how it's meant to be played. For some reason I struggle when it's really calm. For most of the years I've played we've had some pretty good weather. I enjoy the challenge of bad weather; you've got to be very creative. You've got to use your imagination a lot when you're out there when the wind is blowing that hard.
Explain what you mean...
Well, it just helps me to shape the shot using the wind. And I'm just used to it playing really tough so if it's not that then it feels weird. When you do get a day when it's playing easy it is hard to get your mind on the fact you need to make birdies and it plays a lot different.
I remember in 2015 at St Andrews it was so windy, driving the ball in the crosswinds was really hard to hit the fairway. Especially coming in, it was almost impossible to hit it in the fairway. Then the second shot is tough to get it the right distance. It doesn't matter if you shape it into it or if you turn it with it, it really moves.
Americans have a much better record in the Open than people think, despite links golf being alien to them. Why is that, and does it give you extra hope you can add your name to the list?
I'd love to add my name to the Claret Jug. It's a tournament I'd love to win. I'd be on there forever and it's one of our four big tournaments and I feel like I have a great chance of being able to do that. If you look at the American winners, they're all good players, and all good putters.
I think that's the big key – you have to putt it well. The greens roll good, and they're at a good pace to make a lot of putts. But that's the key in every Major. It has no difference in whether you're playing here or in the US. One of the big things is you've got to putt it well.
It must be nice to enter Majors now knowing you already have one. There was a lot of pressure on you when that wasn't the case...
It's a good feeling, for sure. The mindset's different. I'm not trying to win the first one. I already have. So on a Sunday if I'm in contention, just knowing that I can get it done is a big confidence booster coming down the stretch.