Dustin Johnson’s Masters reign brief, but illuminating

Dustin Johnson shows his emotions after Tiger Woods presented him the green jacket for winning last November's Masters. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Dustin Johnson shows his emotions after Tiger Woods presented him the green jacket for winning last November's Masters. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

You think you have Dustin Johnson pretty well figured out. After all, this isn’t exactly some unassembled piece of Ikea furniture we’re dealing with here. It’s golf. And it’s the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer, who reached such lofty heights by keeping everything on the course blissfully uncomplicated.

But then he goes and wins an alternate-universe kind of Masters held in November. More than wins, Johnson dusts the field. He goes record low (20 under), and poor Cameron Smith becomes the first player ever to shoot four rounds in the 60s and doesn’t even sniff the lead, finishing five back. There’s your golfing equivalent of Twice A Prince, the thoroughbred that finished 31 lengths behind Secretariat in the ’73 Belmont Stakes.

And this was the time Johnson chose to start flashing some new facets.

While it may be true that no man is an island, Johnson always seemed like an atoll at least. Yet before Sunday’s final round, this impassive soul was being strangled by nerves.

“Yeah, I was definitely nervous starting the day because obviously it meant so much to me,” Johnson said during a March 16 teleconference. “I was feeling it from kind of the time when I woke up. I couldn’t eat any breakfast, really. Took a couple bites. But it was hard get down for some reason. I’ve never had that problem before.

“And then on the course, too, I remember walking down trying to eat a little bit of an almond butter-and-jelly sandwich and took one bite and had to wash it down with water. That was the only way I could get it down.”

He made it look so easy. Who knew he was one gulp away from requiring an on-course Heimlich?

Then, when the rout was done and he had slipped into the green garment of victory, Johnson just lost it during a CBS interview. He had won a major before, the 2016 U.S. Open. He had made winning on the PGA Tour look as routine as brushing his teeth, claiming at least one title in each of the past 14 years. Never before had any of it cracked Johnson’s placid façade and monotone delivery. Until he won the Masters. “It’s hard to talk,” he told his interviewer that day, apologizing for the dewy eyes and awkward pauses.

The Masters has a habit of peeling its champions and laying them bare. Look, Dustin Johnson has a pulse, too. He is aware, even keenly so.

As his brother, and caddie, Austin recalled for GolfWeek, “I was surprised that he cried and lost it. I’ve seen him get emotional about other things but not golf. But that tournament means so much to him. It humanized him a bit, and everyone else got to see that.”

Johnson may not have any interest in playing in the coming Olympics – he’s said as much – but, in his worldview, what’s that compared with the Masters? We’ve all seen how much that means to him.

Upon his return this week, Johnson will put at risk the briefest reign in Masters history. Other champions have had a full year to enjoy their spoils as defenders of the green jacket, a year to show off that mantle to friends and family and even the girl behind the glass at the Dunkin’ drive-thru.

And yet now, the man who cobbled together one of the more perfect weeks of golf at Augusta National – certainly the best four rounds ever played there by anyone who has teed it up there in November – has had the least time to savor it.

“I felt like I was in complete control of the golf ball pretty much the whole week,” Johnson recalled. His mere four bogeys over as many days were the fewest ever by a Masters winner. Doesn’t that kind of play deserve 365 days of applause? It’s not like winning the Masters is as repeatable as the golf swing. Only three men - Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) - have won consecutive Masters. So, oh, the unfairness of the five-month championship.

“No, I do not feel short-changed,” Johnson said.

“It wouldn’t bother me if I only had it for a day. It would be OK. I’ve got one – and five months, a year, one month, a day, it doesn’t really make a difference to me.”

In that short time, Johnson figures has had chance enough to model the jacket. Once he went to the club earlier this year, visiting the champions locker room where he now shares a stall with Fuzzy Zoeller, eating dinner while cloaked in his very own green jacket, he thought it couldn’t get much better than that.

In terms of golf, his run-up to the Masters this week is not quite as promising as last year. November was the time to catch Dustin Johnson in full. In the six events preceding that Masters, he had two wins (including the Tour Championship) and three runner-up finishes. The other was a T-6 at the U.S. Open.

Not nearly so dialed in this year, he has no finish better than eighth in his five previous starts. In his past two stroke-play outings, he has finished T-54 and T-48. Johnson had entered this week’s event in San Antonio to sharpen his game, but withdrew at the last moment.

As he summed it up two weeks ago, “Just kind of (throwing) away shots, which is real uncharacteristic, but we’ll get it worked out. But the game feels like it’s in pretty good form, and it’s really close to being really good again.”

What he brings with him this time, though, is the comfort that can only come from eliminating all that chatter about why he had won “only” the one major – that 2016 U.S. Open – and let so many others ooze from his grasp. And no more will the native South Carolinian have to quietly rue not winning the one major that is closest to native South Carolinians.

“Yeah, it is something that definitely relieves a lot of pressure when I step back on to the ground at Augusta for the Masters again,” he said.

And didn’t he let us all know five months ago how much that return visit will mean to him.