By Tod Leonard
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
When Dustin Johnson takes a break from golf, he’s as serious about committing to it as he is prepping for a major. “Fishin’” ranks up there on the priority list, as does just hanging around the house with finacee Paulina Gretzky and their two kids.
Golf? It’s something to avoid thinking about as much as possible for the No. 4 player in the world. Which is why when he was asked to define how little he’s played over the last three months leading into this week’s start in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Johnson broke into a grin that combined mischievous and sheepish.
“A couple times,” he said.
It is so DJ, of course. The man who speaks as languidly as he walks seemed as relaxed as ever, smiling frequently, entering his first event of the calendar year in a tournament that, with the U.S. Open-pedigreed South Course to be battled for three rounds, requires fairly well-honed skills. With the scheduling working out this year before Johnson heads to the Saudi Invitational next week, he’s playing in his first Farmers since 2017. He's not fared particularly well here, either, including missing two of the last three cuts.
“It’s a golf course,” Johnson said with a shrug about starting the year with a daunting challenge. He paused, though, because this isn’t like starting your year in nearly zero rough and perfect greens in the desert. “I did step on the first hole of the North on Sunday afternoon when I got here and I’m, like, ‘Whoa, this fairway’s narrow,’ he said. “I’ve been playing at home in Florida—the fairway’s a bit wider. A little like I was hitting down at hallway [at Torrey Pines]. But it’s nice. It’s a really good spot to know what kind of shape my game is in.”
Johnson, 37, clearly needed a long break after an extended season due to the pandemic that began in September 2020. He won the Masters that November, but 2021 was a frustrating mix of not being able to put all of his game together in the same week. He wasn’t terrible, posting nine top-10s among his 21 starts, and he was positively stellar in the Ryder Cup, becoming the first American to go 5-0 since 1979. But the majors are a point of motivation, and a missed cut at Augusta after a too-short time as reigning champ, along with another open weekend for the PGA Championship, left a dissatisfied residue on the year.
“It was frustrating to me just because I just wasn't consistent,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I put a lot of good rounds together, but I just couldn't
put four rounds together. It felt like when I was hitting the driver good, I wasn't hitting my irons very well. If I was hitting my irons well, I wasn't driving it good. Just nothing was matching up. It just gets frustrating when you do it for eight months straight. Especially after like the fall I had the year before, it was really frustrating.”
He added, “One thing that I was really frustrated with was with my driver and we got a new driver this year, the new [TaylorMade] Stealth driver, and I really like it. So that was one reason why I wasn't playing or took a break, until I could get the new driver and start practicing with it.”
Johnson gained nearly two yards in average off the tee last year and ranked seventh on the tour in distance (312.9 yards), but he fell to 136th in accuracy (57.87 percent) and his strokes gained/off-the-tee took a hit. He was 11th in that stat in 2020 and fell to 21stI last year. Not a steep drop, but the margins are small in Johnson’s lofty atmosphere.
Another arduous season is coming for the 24-time winner on the PGA Tour. And it looks a lot more promising after three months of vacation, when one of the biggest concerns of the day is if the fish would bite. Asked to put.a number on his angling handicap, Johnson said, “I mean, it’s fishin’. Some days I’m a plus-6, some days I’m an 18. It just all depends.”
Just like golf in that regard.