It only looks as though Dustin Johnson barely has a pulse on the golf course.
One moment made him a little nervous.
It wasn’t the tee shot that rolled toward the railroad tracks and barely crossed the out-of-bounds line, right after he had taken a two-shot lead in the final round of the Travelers Championship. It wasn’t even the tee shot two holes later that was headed for the water until it landed softly enough to stay dry, even though his feet got wet hitting the next one.
That’s just golf. Good or bad, he moves on. No one has a shorter memory.
What caused concern was his knee.
Johnson missed three months at the end of last year recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to repair cartilage damage. He lost another three months when golf shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And then as he worked overtime getting ready to resume, the knee started acting up.
He called his partner, Paulina Gretzky, on the Tuesday before the Colonial and said he was coming home. The next day the knee felt better, so he stuck it out and missed the cut.
”I was nervous,” Johnson said Tuesday. ”I had an MRI when I got home, and everything with my surgery had healed great. It was just a strained tendon.”
Whether it was time away from golf and then an abundance of practice, Johnson isn’t sure.
”Obviously,” he said, ”everything is better now.”
Johnson won the Travelers Championship for his 22nd victory worldwide, ending a drought of 490 days that matched the longest of his career.
It was more exciting than it needed to be, which often is the case with his entertaining brand of golf.
After going out of bounds on the 13th, he answered with a 15-foot birdie putt and then got a rare break for him – Johnson’s ledger remains heavily skewed toward misfortune on the course – when his ball stayed out of the water.
One victory doesn’t always signal he’s on his way.
One shot did it for Butch Harmon, his swing coach who was watching from Las Vegas. With a one-shot lead playing the 18th, Johnson smoked his driver 351 yards, setting up a flip wedge and two putts for the win.
”He was leaking oil a little on the back nine,” Harmon said. ”His bounce-back is incredible. But the key to me was knowing he had to drive it well on 18. I told him when I talked to him later, that was the part I appreciated the most. Yeah, that was just like Oakmont.”
The drive on the daunting closing hole at Oakmont in Pennsylvania, reputed to be the toughest course in America, is what Johnson considers one of the signature shots of his career. It sealed his victory at the 2016 U.S. Open, which remains his only major title. Johnson turned 36 last week. There is still plenty of time to fix the one area of his resume that – with his talent – is sorely lacking.
What also got Harmon’s attention was where Johnson won.
The TPC Riverland Highlands in Connecticut is a par 70 at 6,841 yards, hardly known as a course for big hitters. Johnson played the two par 5s in just 2 under for the week and still shot 19-under 261, his sixth straight victory with a score of 19 under or better.
His 22 victories have come on 18 courses.
He has won at sea level (Doral) and mile-high altitude (Mexico City). He has won on courses that reward power (Crooked Stick) and shot-making (Riviera). Pebble Beach; the TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee; Kapalua and Chapultepec in Mexico City are the only courses where he has won twice.
Johnson wasn’t aware of this.
”I think it shows my game is suitable for any course,” he said. ”I like a variety of golf courses. And a lot of these courses that I didn’t like then, I’ve grown to like now.”
He paused before adding with a laugh, ”And I wasn’t hitting it as straight.”
If there are ”horses for courses,” this might make him mostly a thoroughbred. He’s not alone in that department, of course. Rory McIlroy, the current No. 1 player in golf, has won 26 times on 22 courses around the world, with his only repeat victories at Quail Hollow, TPC Boston and both courses in Dubai (Emirates and Jumeirah Estates).
Ditto for Tiger Woods, even if it doesn’t seem that way.
Woods has eight victories at Torrey Pines, Firestone and Bay Hill. He has five victories at Augusta National, Muirfield Village and Cog Hill. They are among 19 courses where he has won multiple times. That’s mainly because Woods wins a lot.
Phil Mickelson has 47 wins worldwide on 25 courses, with multiple wins on 14 courses.
”Being able to adapt is a huge deal, play on different golf courses,” Bryson DeChambeau said. ”That’s what I’m trying to learn how to do. I think that will happen down the road if I just keep playing good golf, but being able to adapt in different situations and play in different conditions, win everywhere, is pretty impressive.”
When he’s on his game, when he’s healthy, Johnson is as impressive as anyone. A winner again, he plans to spend two weeks at home in Florida before returning for the Memorial.
He hasn’t won there yet.