The PLAYERS Championship: The Return of Dustin Johnson

Posted by: mike May 12th, 2017

By Ted Johnson

Dustin Johnson heads to TPC Sawgrass for this week’s Players Championship as the heavy favorite. And why not? He is averaging 315 off the tee and hitting three out of four greens. Forget the 50-percent fairway stat because much of the time he’s hitting short irons and wedges into the greens, thus the rough has less influence on his control.

Moreover, the radar on his approach shots has been fine-tuned, his chipping is improved and his putting is steady. In all, he couldn’t print money fast enough to match his winnings so far. He’s won three times so far in 2017, and six of his 15 PGA TOUR wins have come in the last 18 months.

But… there’s always a but. As the heavy favorite going into the Masters, he withdrew early in the first round because of a mysterious injury at his rental home. He slipped down stairs. Raising eyebrows.Dustin Johnson PGA

There were periods in the last five years when Johnson’s head sometimes got in the way. Harsh? Perhaps. But consider the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, whose second hole is an easy par-5 so the USGA turned it into a par-4. Johnson still hit driver-wedge in the earlier rounds, only to stumble on that hole for a very unlikely bogey in the final round.

On the next hole, the dogleg left par-4 third, he tried to lace his drive very near the green. It’s a 420-yard hole, but he wanted to shorten it to about 380 yards with a tee shot over cypress trees separating the third from the 16th. He pulled his tee shot into hazard by the 16th green. I was there when caddies, volunteers and a rules official scoured the bush for Johnson’s TaylorMade Penta.

Just Johnson’s luck: It was found shortly after the five-minute grace period expired. It was back to the tee, hitting three, certain double-bogey in hand. That three-shot lead evaporated just like that, and so did Johnson’s confidence. Graeme McDowell won it going away.

Johnson’s rise includes that sterling final-round performance at Oakmont to win the 2016 U.S. Open. And, yes, it meant overcoming a rather eyebrow-raising ruling from the USGA that his ball had moved on a putting green. And yet Johnson persevered. He controlled his emotions, but then to see Johnson slowly lope down the fairways makes one wonder if you saw him during your Saturday $2 Nassau you’d wonder if he really wanted to be there. He oozes relaxation.

Since Oakmont, he’s been almost unstoppable. He trusts that 2-yard cut on his drive, and he has something extra if he needs it, thanks to those long arms on his 6-foot-4 frame. In teaching parlance, he has leverage like Florida has alligators.

That said, the Players provides unique challenges. Pete Dye doesn’t have to do long to get into player’s heads, making this tournament a good place to measure the maturity of golf’s No. 1 player. To his credit, Johnson has finished in the top-12 in the last four tournaments at TPC Sawgrass.

Dye knows that golfer’s want a target. On many of the tees at Sawgrass, the golfer can see the flag waving in the distance over a sight line running over the edge of those famous Dye waste bunkers, sharp edges falling into crushed seashells and sand. It makes the golfer feel like the fairway is four yards wide.

I played Sawgrass and I thought I had pulled my tee shot 30 yards left of what I assumed the ideal driving line would be on No. 7. When I got to my ball I found I was in the middle of the fairway. It takes discipline to forget the direct line to the target and to play away from the edges.

Also, Dye doesn’t like crooked. He told me once that, on his courses, if you’re short of the green and in the middle, you’ll be OK. Long of the green and in the middle, that’s OK, too. But miss the greens on the sides, like many slicing 20-handicappers often do, you’re going to have a tough time. “That’s why the 20-handicappers hate me,” he said.

The back nine is a famous test of control. The tenth is a right-to-left short par-4 with hazard on the left – 3-wood, short iron. No. 11 – par-5 over 550 yards with great risk-reward on the second shot as the green is bordered by bunker and railroad ties next to a water hazard.

The 12th is a short par-4 that requires playing away from a huge mound guarding the left side of the fairway. The par-3 13th has several pin placements that make the pros play an 8-iron on one day, a 6-iron on another. Back-to-back power par-4s requiring shaped tee shots to open up the approach shots to the 14th and 15th greens follow.

Then comes the transformative triad of 16-17-18. The par-5 16th is now but a 3-wood-mid-iron for the game’s longest hitters – that is, if they put it in the fairway. The 135-yard (or so, depending on the tees) island green at No. 17 is the first thing players have in their minds as soon as they step on the golf course. It closes with the 440-yard par-4 18th, water on the left the whole way.

In 1996, Fred Couples started No. 16 down two shots to Colin Montgomerie, and by the time he teed off on No. 18 he was up one. That’s what this triad can do.

In today’s game, in which Johnson’s pitching wedge is geared for about 150 yards and whose carry distance off a 3-wood is about 275 yards, 440-yard par-4s are ho-hum. But the Players is a control course, rewarding not bravery but precision. You don’t have to hit every shot long, just every shot well.

The Players brings together perhaps the strongest field of the year. Its conditions can be tricky but the weather calls for high temps the first two days, which should make it play hard and fast. Long-hitters like Dustin Johnson don’t have too much of an advantage because their long, straight drives can run into thick Bermuda rough.

Dart-throwers like Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Zach Johnson can be very effective here (See: Fred Funk). But with his length, this may be Johnson’s week to prove that he’s head and (very big) shoulders above the rest of the TOUR.