The mind of Dustin Johnson is to sports psychologists what the Galapagos Islands were to Charles Darwin. For behind that inscrutable expression is a realm full of discoveries, challenging everything the gurus thought they knew about athletes’ thought processes.
“DJ Island”, his brother and caddie, Austin, calls it, describing his unnerving ability to retreat into a world free of distractions.
His gift for distilling life to its fundamentals served him royally that week, as he dismantled Augusta’s defences. Where Major champions before him had thrown away their Sunday leads around Amen Corner, Johnson simply squeezed the throttle, finishing at 20-under par to break the Masters scoring record.
As an exhibition of front-running, it was every bit as impressive as Tiger Woods’s demolition of the field in 1997.
Only three players in the Masters’ 87-year history have won back-to-back tournaments: Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo – all Mount Rushmore figures in the game.
He grew up just across the state line in South Carolina, attended practice rounds with his father when he was 10, made his Masters debut at 24, and has posted five top-10 finishes in the past six years. The one gap in that sequence, in 2017, occurred when he fell down the stairs of his rented house.
Couple this pedigree with the fact that his last triumph took place just 21 weeks ago, and it is little wonder that he starts a strong favourite, despite some erratic driving displays of late.
Few expected Johnson to hold much regard for the achievement most bookmakers expect him to emulate, as the winner of consecutive Masters. But he sprang a surprise. One question to him on the subject was phrased: “History is not always your strong suit. Do you know the three guys who have been back-to-back here?”
“I do,” he shot back. So why did he think so few had managed it?
“You’ve just got to do everything well. At any time here, any hole can jump out and get you. This is a very tough place to win once, and especially multiple times.”
Johnson, in many ways, is the diametric opposite of Bryson DeChambeau, the bodybuilding athlete whose Augusta battle-plan is based on the appliance of science. For a start, Johnson’s athleticism is largely inbuilt. He is strong enough to hit a 350-yard drive without looking as if he will end up in hospital.
Where DeChambeau transformed himself into an Incredible Hulk lookalike with frightening speed, Johnson has a power game where every element looks natural and in proportion.
Their mental approaches, too, form a study in contrasts. Where DeChambeau goes for exhaustive brain scans after feeling a bout of dizziness, Johnson swats any setbacks aside.
When he three-putted the final hole to lose the US Open in 2015, the received wisdom was that the psychological scar tissue would be irreparable. Within an hour, he was outside the clubhouse signing autographs. A year later, he pitched up at Oakmont for another try and won the title. No wonder his agent, David Winkle, described him to Golfweek as being coated in Teflon.
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