golf

Driver gets Johnson into and out of trouble

Columbia native working on improving other aspects of his game in hopes of big year

bgillespie@thestate.comJanuary 12, 2013 

  • Johnson withdraws with flu Dustin Johnson withdrew Friday after nine holes at the Sony Open because of the flu. He opened with a 70 at Waialae and was 3 over on the front nine — at least four shots from making the cut — when he informed tournament officials that he was too ill to continue. The Associated Press

— Teddy Roosevelt, had he cared at all for golf (he didn’t), would’ve approved of how Dustin Johnson plays the game. It was our 26th U.S. president, after all, who gets credit for coining the perfect description of the long-hitting PGA Tour player.

Speak softly and carry a big stick. That is Dustin Johnson in a nutshell.

Sometimes it’s also his worst indictment — though there are signs that might not be the case soon.

One of the game’s most powerful drivers (being 6-foot-4 and freakishly athletic doesn’t hurt), the Columbia native and former Myrtle Beach resident used his big stick with authority a week ago in the kickoff of the 2013 PGA Tour season. Playing in windy conditions at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii that delayed the tournament’s start until Monday, Johnson demolished the winners-only field of 30, topping defending champion Steve Stricker by four shots over a shortened 54 holes.

“(The win) means a lot, especially for my confidence,” Johnson told reporters at Kapalua’s wide-open Plantation Club, “and just for all the things I’ve been working on and all the hard work I’ve put in. Sometimes I hit a couple bad drives, but I was always able to bounce back and do what I needed to do to stay out front.”

Indeed, as has often been the case with the 28-year-old star, who has won seven titles in six years on the PGA Tour — at least one per year, the second-longest such streak in the game — his length off the tee was at times both his own worst enemy and ultimate savior.

It’s no surprise that Johnson’s driver got him in the worst trouble he faced in Tuesday’s final round: an off-line tee shot into bushes that cost him a double bogey at the 13th hole, allowing Stricker to get within a shot.

No surprise, either, that his driver to within 50 yards of the green set up an eagle chip-in on the next hole that reestablished his lead and essentially ended any suspense.

But then, that’s been the story on Johnson almost from the first day he arrived on the PGA Tour after an All-America career at Coastal Carolina. Most observers believe he has the talent to rival the only other player to win each of his first four years on Tour — that would be Tiger Woods — if he can keep his wilder instincts in check.

Now, it seems that assessment has embedded itself in Johnson’s head as well.

“I still don’t think I’ve lived up to my potential, (though) obviously this week I did,” he said. “I played really well but still made some mistakes. Just limiting those will definitely help, just making some better decisions.

“If I keep playing golf like I’m playing right now, then, you know, obviously there is no limit.”

For a guy who usually keeps a low profile away from golf — with a couple of glaring exceptions, which we’ll get to momentarily — that’s a strong statement. Johnson doesn’t go out of his way to blow his own horn; plenty of others have done it for him.

Take his instructor, Butch Harmon, former mentor to, among others, the aforementioned Woods. Not only does Harmon support Johnson’s sometimes-questionable selection of the driver — “Best club in his bag,” Harmon said in Hawaii. “I said to him, ‘Let it fly. That’s when you play your best.’ ” — the renowned teacher also sees traits that could mark him for greatness.

Johnson in past years has infamously let a couple of major championships get away — the 2010 U.S. Open and PGA Championship, most notably — but Harmon says his student never lets those weaken his resolve, much like you-know-who.

“(Johnson) has a remarkable ability, just like Tiger Woods, that the last shot never happened,” Harmon told Golfweek magazine. “He lets it go. That was always a strength of Woods’. You can’t teach that.”

While Woods burst fully onto the PGA Tour by winning the first of his 14 majors (1997 Masters) in his first full season, Johnson has merely shown that potential. He knows he could’ve done more, knows he hasn’t always played the smartest — or worked the hardest.

This week, analysts on Golf Channel assessed his game thus: Great driver, vastly improved putter, still needs to work on his short game, particularly the wedges he hits often because of his length. That said, he’s 28; there’s time.

“I haven’t achieved everything that I can,” Johnson said. “So, you know, maybe it will happen this year. I still have got a lot of things I need to work on and improve, and if I do that, then I think I’ll have a very good year.”

Some would say he already has. Besides winning, Johnson was linked to one Paulina Gretzky — yes, the attractive daughter of hockey’s Great One; check out photos on YouTube and elsewhere — in a Sports Illustrated blog.

Nothing new there; early in 2011, Johnson was linked to LPGA star and SI bathing suit model Natalie Gulbis, who announced their “relationship” to reporters. Johnson denied anything beyond a passing friendship, but presumably long-time girlfriend Amanda Caulder (who accompanied him to last year’s Ryder Cup) was less than thrilled at the gossip.

That’s life in the fast lane, and Johnson — who climbed to No. 12 in the World Golf Rankings with this win — is likely to be there a long time.

“I don’t really look ahead that far,” he said. “I kind of go week-to-week.”

As for the rest of 2013, he said: “There (are) some things that I need to improve on in my game, and if I do, then the rest will fall into place.”

The things he needs to improve? The big stick isn’t one of them.

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