Dustin Johnson is underestimated.
A funny thing to say for the No. 1 player in the world, who arrives at the Masters as a favorite after winning his last three events. But it’s true.
For a long time, the perception of Johnson was that he was little more than a bomber, his game depending heavily on his physical ability and not so much the mental side of it. Put him on courses where length carried the day, and you’d find him near the top of the leaderboard. But if his short game came into play, or his putting, he’d inevitably fade.
Over the last year, however, Johnson has flipped that script. And his newfound ability to think his way around a golf course might be the biggest revelation at Augusta National this year.
“He’s very underrated in that department. There is a cerebral element to what Dustin Johnson does,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said last week during a teleconference to preview the Masters.
“I think there’s an ability for him to take a look at the lay of the land and immediately imagine the shot that’s required to fit whatever hole location, and then be able to make the changes in his golf swing just immediately to sort of fit the lay of the land,” Chamblee continued. “And that’s an athletic genius that is really underrated.
“He may not be able to articulate that to the degree that everybody wants him to, but I think athletically, he’s got a gift.”
That Johnson was physically gifted was never a question. “Kind of a freak of nature,” Rickie Fowler called him Monday. He got his first victory in 2008, his first full year on tour, and has won at least one event every year since.
He’s finished in the top 15 of the FedExCup standings all but one year since 2009. The exception came in 2014, when he missed the last half of the year while taking a leave of absence to resolve personal issues.
Despite that, until last year, Johnson was more known for his flameouts than his successes. The leave of absence, obviously. Then there were his debacles at the majors.
He coughed up both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in 2010, gagging away his three-stroke lead after 54 holes at Pebble Beach by going triple bogey-double bogey-bogey on Nos. 2-4 and then grounding his club in a hazard area on the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits.
He was within a shot of the lead at the British Open in 2011 when he hit out of bounds. He lost the 2015 U.S. Open by a stroke after three-putting from 12 feet on the final hole.
But something swing coach Butch Harmon had said struck a nerve with Johnson early last year. If he ever wanted to be the player he was capable of, Harmon said, Johnson was going to have to get better from 150 yards in.
So during the West Coast swing, he began refining his short game, particularly his wedges.
“It was something that I never really — I practiced, but not like, you know, just a certain way,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I’ve got three shots with each wedge and I’ll work on the same three shots with each wedge every day pretty much. That’s where it’s improved.
“It’s nothing — there’s no rocket science behind it. It’s just pretty simple,” he added. “It’s helped me a lot with distance control. Just knowing exactly how far my wedges go, and it’s something that I never really had done before.”
He’s making up for it now. During one of his warm-up sessions at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, 40 of his 50 shots were with his wedges. It’s a wonder his TrackMan, which uses radar technology to gauge launch angle, spin rate and curvature, isn’t smoking by the time he finishes his practice sessions.
(Yes, he brought it with him to Augusta National and had it on the driving range Monday and Tuesday.)
The impact on his game has been significant, to put it mildly.
Johnson shed that dreaded, “Best Player Never to Win a Major” label at last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont. He was rock steady at the Ryder Cup, helping the Americans beat Europe for the first time since 2008.
And this year, he’s dominated in a way that recalls Tiger Woods in his heyday.
“It’s all figuring on Dustin Johnson right now,” said Colin Montgomerie, now an analyst for Golf Channel. “If he gets off to a good start the first day, he’ll be a very, very difficult man to beat, because he’s becoming like Woods was in our era: You don’t want him in your rear-view mirror at all.”
Always able to overpower a course with his length, he can now overpower it with his wedges and is close to being able to do it with his putter, too. That makes him a threat at Augusta National. And everywhere else for that matter.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.