Wednesday 20 November 2019

Gretzky's work ethic rubbing off on Johnson

Having missed the Masters through injury, Dustin Johnson is hoping to add to his Majors tally this week. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Having missed the Masters through injury, Dustin Johnson is hoping to add to his Majors tally this week. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Oliver Brown

Dustin Johnson's press conference lasted seven minutes yesterday, which by his standards was the Gettysburg Address. Investiture as the world No 1 has done little for his expansiveness or his appetite to unpack the mysteries of the golfing universe.

He lopes around a course like a latter-day Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of American folklore, swishing a club like an axe and breaking stride only to hawk a lump of tobacco into the long grass.

As such, he stands alone among this field as the player who could, if conditions fall his way, plunder at Birkdale without mercy. "The course sets up well for me," he said, ominously, given the languid ease of his triumph last year at Oakmont, the most fiendish beast on the US Open roster.

There are, however, two very different incarnations of Johnson. One is the remorseless bomber who reduced the opposition to a pulp earlier this year, reeling off three wins in succession. The other is a golfing intellect who would hardly qualify for Mensa, having thrown away his chance of an Open title in 2011, at Royal St George's, by blazing his drive at the 14th out of bounds.

Unreflective

Johnson, though, is a notoriously unreflective type. He forgets about setbacks as rapidly as most journalists forget about his public utterances.

The received wisdom was that he would be scarred for life by three-putting from six feet to lose the US Open in 2015, but Bobby Brown, his former caddie, assured that he would have purged it from his mind five minutes later.

The same rule applies to his fall down the stairs at his rented house in Augusta, which has sabotaged his season. One moment Johnson was a runaway favourite for the Masters, having claimed a hat-trick of wins with a conviction that only Rory McIlroy has matched in the post-Tiger Woods era.

The next, he was hobbling back down Magnolia Lane, his opportunity ruined before he had even reached the first tee. Was this a lingering source of regret? "I mean, it sucked, that's for sure," Johnson replied, deadpan. "But things happen. Obviously, I've had quite a few things happen to myself. It's nothing new."

Johnson is on his own here in Southport, his wife Paulina having decided to stay at home in Florida with the couple's second son, five-week-old River.

Family has proved a crucial mellowing influence for him in recent years. In 2014, Johnson had succumbed so helplessly to the temptations of the touring lifestyle that he was forced to take a six-month leave of absence for the sake of his relationship.

One factor was the glowering presence of his father-in-law, a certain Wayne Gretzky, the most celebrated player in ice hockey history, who told him in bald terms to shape up or ship out. As such, Johnson now speaks in the indulgent tone of the dutiful parent.

"Everybody is happy," he said. "Definitely, the second child is easier than the first one. You're not quite as nervous when you're bringing him home from hospital."

He remains a prodigious natural athlete, whom the rest should fear over these next four days. At 6ft 4ins, with long levers, Johnson can dunk a basketball or throw a baseball at more than 145kmh at will. But one telling feature of his rise to the summit has been his reluctance to keep relying on raw talent alone.

Instead, he has leant upon the services of Joey Diovisalvi, his personal trainer, to introduce much-needed discipline and structure to his regime. It was a change where the great Gretzky played a crucial role, convincing Johnson that status as his sport's No 1 would involve sacrifice.

Certain shadows still hover over Johnson. There was an uncomfortable moment yesterday when he was asked for his thoughts about the PGA Tour's plan to introduce blood testing. Johnson has been dogged by reports of three failed drug tests earlier in his career, and he dead-batted the question immediately. "I don't care," he said. "It's nothing that concerns me."

Johnson ascribed a run of ragged form, including a missed cut at Erin Hills that brought his defence of the US Open to a meek conclusion, to a failure to maintain his touch around the greens. "After the injury at Augusta, I spent a lot of time working on my swing, and not so much on the short game," he explained.

"That was not by design, but just how it went. I feel like the game is starting to get back to what it was. I'm hitting it much better, and the putter is starting to roll again."

For his rivals, wary of the fearless Johnson they witnessed not six months ago, those parting words should chill the blood. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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