Dustin Johnson would have never predicted that a couple stairs outside his rental home in Augusta, Ga., would derail the best golf of his life.
But it has been more than four months since Johnson slipped on a wet staircase and injured his back on the eve of the Masters Tournament on April 5, and the Coastal Carolina alumnus is still searching for the form he had prior to the injury.
Johnson, 33, had won three consecutive tournaments to firmly establish himself as the No. 1 player in the world and had top-six finishes in five of his first six PGA Tour starts in 2017.
This week’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club, where Johnson seeks his second major championship and fourth victory of the season, is his ninth start since the injury.
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“I had a lot of confidence. I’d just won three big events in a row, and I mean, I was playing as good of golf as I’ve ever played, and consistently every day,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It was as good as I’ve ever felt and confidence was probably as high as it’s ever been. But things happen. Just when you feel like you get on top, something happens that knocks you down.
“But I'm fighting back right now and I feel like the game’s as good as it was, you know, before then.”
In addition to the three straight victories, Johnson was on a stretch of six victories and 14 top-10 finishes in 18 starts dating back to his win at last year's U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
In eight tournaments since withdrawing from the Masters, Johnson has five top-20 finishes, including a runner-up in the Wells Fargo Championship at Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, N.C., in his return in early May. But he has also finished 54th or worse in three of his past five events.
Johnson admitted two weeks ago at the RBC Canadian Open that he’s still dealing with lingering effects of the fall and injury, which was diagnosed as a deep bruise. He said the area has a tendency to be tight, requiring extra time with physical therapy and physiotherapy to loosen up the muscles and tendons.
“It is frustrating what happened when I was playing so well, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” Johnson said.
Johnson is coming off a tie for 17th Sunday in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with rounds of 68 and 66 on the weekend, and tied for eighth the previous week at the RBC Canadian Open. Those results came after a tie for 54th and a pair of missed cuts in his previous three tournaments.
“I had a nice weekend. I felt like I got some things worked out in the swing that were just holding me back a little bit,” said Johnson, who estimates he’s 85 percent back to his former form. “Right now I feel it’s as close to when I was playing really well before Augusta than it has been, you know, since then.
“The golf swing’s there. I feel good. My body feels great. I’m looking for a really good week this week.”
One aspect of his game that has taken a while to come back is his consistency off the tee. Johnson’s dominant run to the No. 1 ranking coincided with his adoption of a fade with his driver that added consistent accuracy to his prodigious length, and allowed him to take advantage of all the work he had done dialing in his wedge distances.
Johnson is first on the PGA Tour in driving distance with an average distance of 314.3 yards, but is 181st in driving accuracy, hitting fairways just 53.8 percent of the time.
The problem was I wasn't driving it very well, so I just didn't get many opportunities to hit wedge from the fairway. But I feel like the driver is going very well now. I feel like I've got a lot of control over it. I feel like I'm hitting good shots with it. They are going where I'm looking. I think this is going to be a very good week.
“The problem was I wasn't driving it very well, so I just didn't get many opportunities to hit wedge from the fairway,” Johnson said. “But I feel like the driver is going very well now. I feel like I've got a lot of control over it. I feel like I'm hitting good shots with it. They are going where I'm looking. I think this is going to be a very good week.”
Johnson, who has 15 PGA Tour wins and at least one in each of his 10 years on the tour, attributed scheduling to the reason he hasn’t played much at Quail Hollow Club. He has played the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow just three times, the last coming six years ago.
His track record at the course isn’t great despite a long and difficult layout that would seem to suit his game. Johnson has two missed cuts and a tie for 29th, has just one round of 70 or better – a second-round 65 in 2010 – and three of his eight competitive scores on the course have been 77 or worse.
He professes to like the course this week, however, and changes that include the redesign of three holes on the front nine, toughening of some holes, and addition of yardage to create a 7,600-yard behemoth that has been lessened from a par of 72 to 71.
“I like the way it’s set up. I like the holes,” Johnson said. “It’s hard, it’s long. You can’t fake it around here. It’s impossible. It’s a major championship and it’s going to play like it. I'm excited about the Championship.”
Despite his infrequent visits to Quail Hollow, the course and Charlotte area can be considered a home field of sorts for the Columbia native.
Fiancee Paulina Gretzky and his two young sons will be at the tournament, and several family members and friends from the Columbia and Myrtle Beach areas will be in attendance.
“I consider it kind of home. It’s only an hour away from where I grew up,” Johnson said. “My family will be up watching, supporting me. I’ve got a lot of fans in this area and then obviously Columbia is not that long of a drive. I mean, it's kind of a home game for me, so it's nice.”
Johnson still has a sizable lead in the Official World Golf Ranking, though it has been cut into following consecutive victories by No. 2 Jordan Spieth in the Travelers Championship and British Open. No. 3 Hideki Matsuyama won Sunday with a closing 61, No. 4 Rory McIlroy is rounding into form with a pair of top-five finishes, and No. 5 Sergio Garcia won the Masters. “All the guys that are behind me, I’m looking over my shoulder at,” Johnson said.
As Johnson seeks his second major championship this week, it can be argued that the PGA of America owes him one.
On the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Johnson held a one-stroke lead as he stood atop mounding well to the right of the fairway, eyeing an approach to the green following a wayward drive.
He made a bogey on the hole and was bound for a playoff, but he had grounded his club in dirt before hitting his second shot, and was unknowingly in what was deemed a bunker that also had spectators and trash in it. Johnson was assessed a two-stroke penalty and tied for fifth.
“I don’t think it owes me one. It was my fault. I grounded a club in what they still say is a bunker,” Johnson said. “But it’s a major championship. It’s a tournament that I would definitely like to win, and there is no better week than this one.”
Johnson is just 14 months removed from his first and only major championship victory, and it came following several majors in which he contended but was unable to close the deal.
“As many close calls as I’ve had in majors, it definitely lifted a weight off my back, or even [silenced] that little voice in the back of your head asking if you’re ever going to win one,” Johnson said. “I knew I had what it takes. I’d been there on Sunday . . . Now I know how to get there and know what it takes to get it done.”
He was poised to be there and get it done at the Masters four months ago, and can make up for lost time and lost form this week.
Johnson tees off in the first round at 8:35 a.m. Thursday with Jason Day and Henrik Stenson.
DJ’s PGA Tour wins
Turning Stone Resort Championship
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am
FedEx St. Jude Classic
Hyundai Tournament of Champions
WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play