Is Dustin Johnson built to dominate the game?
The key issues to know right now, including DJ’s ascent to number one, the dominance of the big hitters, and five Tiger revelations.
It used to be, not all that long ago, that reaching the top of golf’s world rankings really meant something. In eras gone by, it was a fulfilment of youthful promise, a validation of the endless hours spent finely honing your game and a badge of honour that only a select few would ever wear.
Judging by the recent elevation of Dustin Johnson to world number one, however, such romantic notions may well be outdated.
Having dethroned Jason Day with victory at the Genesis Open on February 20, Johnson admitted that he hadn’t even been thinking about
taking over at the top. “I wasn’t really thinking about my world ranking,” he admitted. “I look at the world golf rankings but it’s not like my goal... I want to win the tournament I’m playing. If I get to No.1 from winning the golf tournament, that’s a bonus.”
In this respect, DJ merely echoes the game’s most dominant world number one, because as Tiger Woods liked to say during his 683-week run at the top, winning takes care of everything. Recent history suggests that DJ’s approach is a good way to go.
Tough At The Top
Since the world ranking began in 1986, only 20 men have reached the top. Being world number one can be career-defining, or just too much to bear. During his 22 weeks at the top, Lee Westwood described it as “a dream”, though unlike DJ, he reached the top before he landed a major. Jason Day admitted that his “whole goal in life was to get to No.1.” Vijay Singh’s 32 weeks at the top were “the biggest achievement of my career.”
Tiger seemed to feel nothing much either way. Being number one was as natural as breathing in and breathing out, but he noted the pressure it brought. “What prepares you for the pressure of being No.1?” he asked. “Nothing. For me it wasn’t necessarily the pressure. It was [simply] the scheduling. I’d never played that much golf around the world.”
The demands increase when a player assumes top spot – from media requests and charitable causes, to the length of autograph lines. Not everyone copes as naturally as Tiger did.
“Everything is under a microscope,” bemoaned Martin Kaymer, who hung in for eight weeks. “Everybody wants to talk to you, everybody wants something. It’s difficult to stay nice. Expectations are higher. You are expected to win. There is so much media attention; it can get out of control.”
Ernie Els felt similar feelings over his nine-week run. “You feel, I wouldn’t say ‘lonely’ is the word, but you’re certainly exposed,” he said. “You’re walking around with a lot more pressure than the guy that’s 50th in the world, I can promise you that.”
Ian Woosnam bemoaned the extra responsibility the position brought him over 50 weeks, and the sense that he was “letting people down” if he missed a cut or considering swing fixes. David Duval lasted 15 weeks and harrumphed: “I just wish I could be anonymous again.”
Even Rory felt the negative side-effects over his 95-week reign. When asked, on the day he was dethroned, if the pressure had become too great, he nodded. “I guess, in a way. I’ve had a year to get used to it so it shouldn’t be a problem. But you want to prove that you are world number 1 and that’s not the right way to go about things.”
So what is the right way to go about things – what does DJ need to do to remain at the top?
Ahead Of The Game
Keep fit and healthy, keep playing and keep winning, that’s the short answer. DJ’s victory at the WGC-Mexico event last month suggests he has the right recipe. “Whatever he’s doing, he just needs to keep doing it,” said Jason Day. “If he keeps playing the way he’s playing, we’ve got to pick our game up and just try to compete with him.”
What he shouldn’t do, says Dr Joe Parent, author of Zen Golf, is attempt to change how he plays. “Some number ones – Ian Baker-Finch’s a prime example – think that because they’re world number one they have to play golf better than anyone else every week, so they either try too hard or make changes to try to be even better. That doesn’t work. Dustin needs to trust in the things that got him where he is.”
How long can he remain on top is the inevitable follow-on question. Anything more than a year would buck recent trends, in an era where competition is fiercer than ever before. Between April 6, 1986 and October 30, 2010, 12 different players held top spot. Since then, eight different players have reached the summit. While Tiger’s dominance skews that figure, we’re now clearly in an era where things change faster.
And yet the man best placed to make a prediction is expecting DJ to now dominate. “Dustin is the one player out there that I believe will be able to hold No.1
‘In 14 years between 1986 and 2010, 12 players held top men have reached the summit. Tiger skews that stat, but
for a long time,” says Butch Harmon, DJ’s swing coach since 2009. Harmon’s a good judge, having helped Tiger (683 weeks) and Greg Norman (331) to the top.
“Dustin has so much confidence in all parts of his game,” says Harmon, who has helped him iron out his one key weakness. “His short game is better, and he’s starting to be that guy that, when he’s on, he’s almost impossible to beat.”
The stats back him up. Since the start of 2016, DJ has had top 10 finishes in 20 of 29 tournaments. Since his US Open win last year he’s had 5 wins in 17 starts. Right now he appears built to keep on winning. “He’s starting to remind me of Tiger in the old days,” smiles Harmon.
Being top of the pile may not mean as much to DJ as it has to others, but if Harmon is correct, it’s a feeling he’ll have to get used to.