Dustin Johnson said as early as his emerging collegiate career at Coastal Carolina that he wanted to become the best golfer in the world, and he believed he was capable.
Now we know his intentions once he achieved that status.
He’s beginning to pile on.
Since taking over the No. 1 world ranking on Feb. 19 with his win in the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club, Johnson has only reinforced his standing atop the golf world with wins in his next two starts in World Golf Championship events – the Mexico Championship and Dell Match Play Championship.
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“The drive is to be the best,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to hear it, that’s for sure. For me, it drives me to practice more and to continue to work on my game and continue to try to get better so I can stay there.”
A victory in the 81st Masters Tournament this week at Augusta National Golf Club would make Johnson the first player since Tiger Woods in 2008 to win four consecutive PGA Tour starts.
More importantly, it would give Johnson his second major title in 10 months and a green jacket from a tournament that he admired while growing up a one-hour drive from Augusta National in Columbia.
Asked Tuesday when he first believed he could take over the No. 1 ranking, he joked, “When Tiger stopped playing.”
Woods’ inactivity may have opened the door, but Johnson has strolled right in with his confident, athletic gait.
“The past couple years, I think I’ve been in the top-10 for awhile,” Johnson said. “I knew it was definitely a possibility, but I was going to have to get better. Obviously, over the last year or so I feel like my game’s gotten a lot better. But I always believed that I could get there.”
Johnson has won six of his last 18 starts and has 14 top-10 finishes since his win at last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
Johnson was consistent if not dominant through his first eight years as a professional. He has won in each of his 10 seasons on the PGA Tour, though he recorded multiple victories in a season just once through 2015 before breaking through with wins last season in the U.S. Open, a World Golf Championships event and a FedExCup playoffs tournament.
“I feel like I’ve been working hard on it and I feel like I’m playing really well,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Johnson’s ride to the top hasn’t been without a series of speed bumps, if not a couple road blocks both on and off the course.
He had some agonizingly close calls in majors that could have ultimately derailed his confidence and career, particularly missing out on a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship after being assessed a two-stroke penalty for unwittingly grounding his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole, and three-putting from 15 feet on the 72nd hole of the 2015 U.S. Open to lose by a stroke to Jordan Spieth.
“I think I’ve always been good with handling mishaps or losses or anything like that,” Johnson said. “It’s just something that I’ve always dealt with pretty well.”
Obviously they are tough losses. No one likes to lose. But at the end of the day, it's still a game and I still have fun doing it. And you know, I enjoy coming back out here the next day.
Off the course, Johnson took a six-month leave from competitive golf in late 2014 and early 2015 to tackle “personal challenges” that he later identified as drinking to excess.
Asked Tuesday if he would have reached his perch atop the golf world had he not had the six-month break from the tour, Johnson responded, “I really don’t know. Maybe not.”
It’s probably no coincidence that Johnson’s rise to No. 1 has come since he has become a de facto member of the Gretzky family. The benefits have been at least twofold.
He has benefited from observing and spending time with perhaps the greatest hockey player in history, “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky. Advice is both offered and sought, Johnson said.
“[I’ve learned] just from listening to him tell stories about him growing up and how much he used to practice and work hard, just his hard work and dedication.” Johnson said.
His relationship with Gretzky’s daughter and his fiancee, Paulina, and the birth of the couple’s son Tatum in January 2015 – she’s pregnant with their second son – has fostered a maturity and perspective that has transferred to the course.
“When me and Paulina had our son, Tatum, that was probably the biggest change in my life. That probably contributed to a lot of my success,” Johnson said. “It changes your perspective on things. He and Paulina are the most important things in my life. And golf, obviously I love to play it and it’s very important, but at the end of the day I still get to go home to them. No matter what kind of day I’ve had, it always gets better when I see Tatum.”
Johnson has been steadily improving his finishes at Augusta National, with the exception of a missed cut in 2014.
After three consecutive finishes between 30th and 38th in his first three appearances from 2009-11, Johnson tied for 13th in 2013, sixth in 2015 and fourth last year, when he played well enough tee to green on Sunday to win but couldn’t hole any significant putts on the back nine.
“It was the first time I really had a chance to win, so it was good to finally actually have a chance,” Johnson said. “If you want to win around here, you’re going to have to putt it well. That’s something that I feel like if I putt very well, I’m going to have a chance to win on Sunday.”
In addition to a tidied up short game, two particular improvements in his game have led to his recent run of success – dialed-in wedge play and a change in his approach off the tee.
Last winter, Johnson began working in earnest with the TrackMan golf launch monitor to learn the exact distances he hits wedge shots with what he refers to as a full swing, three-quarter swing and half swing.
“I’ve got three shots with each wedge and I’ll work on the same three shots with each wedge every day pretty much,” Johnson said. “That’s where it’s improved … just knowing exactly how far my wedges go, and it’s something that I never really had done before.”
Johnson chose to change from the draw he played with his driver off the tee for most of his life to a fade about a month prior to the 2016 Masters after he blamed wayward drives for perhaps costing him a title at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He’s now just as long but more accurate.
“Dustin is just crazy. He’s just, in a way, kind of a freak of nature,” Rickie Fowler said. “He’s one of the best drivers of the golf ball, and longest out here and one of the straightest.”
Though Augusta National has at least a few holes that would seem to favor a draw from a right-handed player, including the par-5 13th that turns left around a creek and tree line and par-4 downhill 10th that turns left, Johnson doesn’t believe the cut shot will be a detriment at all. He said he pulls a 3-wood when he wants to hit a draw off the tee.
“No. 10 is really the only hole where I need to turn it over,” Johnson said. “Other than that, I feel like my fade works just fine on every hole.”
The betting favorite hasn’t won the Masters since Woods in 2005, and Johnson is the prohibitive favorite this week, currently at about 5-to-2.
“If I want to win here, everything’s going to have to go well for me,” Johnson said. “I’m going to have to drive it well, hit my irons well, putt it well.”
Will the pressure of being the pre-tournament favorite affect Johnson? “I don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve ever been the favorite,” he said.
Not likely the last time, however.