Dustin Johnson posted a final-round three-under 69, nine-under total, to overcome a five-shot deficit entering the final round to win the WGC-Cadillac Championship by a stroke over J.B. Holmes.
Johnson, one of the biggest hitters on the PGA Tour, used his power, fine ballstriking and a hot putter (on the back nine) to tame the Blue Monster course at Trump National Doral for his ninth-career victory on Tour, which vaults him to no. 7 in the world rankings. This is arguably the most significant win in the 30 year old’s career for a variety of reasons.
“Obviously it’s one of my biggest wins, and especially after a long layoff, to come back out and win in my fifth start means a lot,” said Johnson in his post-win press conference. “I’ve been working hard on my game and been working hard on me, and so it means a great deal to have some success right out of the gate. It gives me a lot of confidence, too.”
After missing the cut at the RBC Canadian Open last July, Johnson took a six-month leave of absence from the game to address what he described as “personal challenges.” It was reported that he was actually suspended for testing positive for cocaine. While the Tour, which does not disclose disciplinary actions, and Johnson have both repeatedly denied the report, it might have been a matter of semantics. (For example, the Tour might have told Johnson he would be suspended if he didn’t take a self-imposed break from the game.)
Asked if he had ever flunked a Tour drug test, Johnson hesitated a moment before tersely replying, “No.” When he was pressed again about the “issues” he dealt with and how he hadn’t been forthcoming with them, he said, “Yeah, because it’s personal and frankly, it’s not really anybody’s business.”
Shortly following the birth of his son Tatum, Johnson made his return at the Farmers Insurance Open in February, where he missed the cut. However, since then, it appears his long absence from competition hasn’t hurt his game — he finished T4 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and T2 at the Northern Trust Open, where he lost in a playoff.
“It has been a tough road but a lot of really good things came out of it,” said Johnson, referring to his sabbatical. “It feels awesome to get that win. I knew I was really good, I just knew there was something missing that could make me great. I started working hard on that and it is showing now. This might be the best win.”
This week was also quite a turnaround from last week’s Honda Classic, where he missed the cut after posting scores of 77-75.
“I was tired going into Honda. Just flew back, left Sunday night, landed at six in the morning, and went right out and played the Jake at The Bear’s Club,” Johnson explained. “I just was tired. Wasn’t really into it mentally, and obviously it showed. I think, through two rounds, I think I had like 11 birdies or something. But I was still like 12-over. I just wasn’t mentally into it.
“I felt like I really was swinging well. I just wasn’t into it, that’s all. But I still felt like I was playing pretty well, even though I shot terrible scores.”
Indeed, after taking the weekend off and getting some much-needed rest, Johnson obviously rebounded well at Doral.
Despite missing several good looks for birdie in the first few holes, Johnson hung tough and stayed patient. He finally found his stroke midway through the back nine, rolling in a key 10-footer for par on no. 14 to take the solo lead for the first time. Then, on the next hole, the par-3 15th, he drained a 13-footer for birdie to extend his advantage to two strokes.
“This golf course is so tough, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Johnson, who now has captured wins at two World Golf Championships, with his first taking place at the 2013 HSBC Champions in Shanghai. “You know, the last few holes, they are tough. You can make an easy birdie or you can make an easy bogey. So you know, I mean, I felt like I had a chance all day. Even teeing off, I thought I had a good chance as long as I could just play a good solid round.
“But really, when I really was like, let’s get this thing done was on 14, I knew I needed to make that putt; after I made that putt on 14 for par, that’s when I really was like, okay, we can do this.”
Johnson, who finished first in driving distance for the week, took advantage of his power en route to tempering the difficult golf course in tough conditions.
“It helps because there’s a lot of carries to get it over the fairway bunkers; 300,305,310,” he said. “If it’s downwind, it definitely helps to be able to hit it that far to get it over the bunkers, because there’s not much rough around here. You don’t want to be in the rough, though, because you can’t spin the ball and these greens are really firm. It definitely helps on quite a few holes.
“The par 5s are fairly long, so if you can get one in the fairway on the par 5s, you can reach them. But length, I definitely think length here plays to an advantage.”
Johnson kicked it into another gear and closed with three pars, which was good enough to hoist the trophy at the end of the day. Negative thoughts, though, did creep into his mind on the intimidating finishing hole, the par-4 18th, which is guarded by water all along the left side.
Standing over the ball on the tee of the intimidating finishing hole, the par-4 18th, which is guarded by water all along the left side, Johnson tried to draw from his drive on the previous hole.
“Luckily 17 kind of had the same wind, and then the bunker on the right is about the same carry as the water, and I hit it with the same wind, hit it right over the bunker,” said Johnson. “And so I knew if I was aiming kind of right where I hit it, I knew if I hit it there and hit it good, that I was going to cover the water. But if I came out of it, obviously it was going where I hit it every other day, which is right of the cart path in the trees, which is no good, either.
“I knew (Holmes) was in the fairway, and I’m like, I’ve got this where I have to hit a good drive, so I just tried to make the same swing that I did on 17 and piped one. Probably best drive I hit all week.”
However, he admitted that negative thoughts did creep into his mind.
“I think, like, don’t hit this one in the water,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, I think those things all the time. I was thinking the same thing on that drive: Don’t hook it.”
When it was all said and done, Johnson’s fiancee Paulina Gretzky and his baby boy Tatum were both there to greet and celebrate with him on the 18th green.
“That was the best part of the day for sure,” he said.
Since his return from the long layoff and the birth of his son, Johnson appears to have “changed” and grown and matured as an individual. In his interactions with the media, he seems more patient and pensive — which contrasts with the past when he always seemed like he was in a rush or preoccupied, and answered questions less genuinely and thoughtfully. Whatever he did during his break to deal with his “personal challenges” has evidently been positive.
Fatherhood has also been a good influence on him.
“It’s hard to describe, but just from the first day he’s born, your perspective on life completely changes,” said Johnson. “Things that were important aren’t important anymore. He’s kind of the only thing that’s really important, and being there for him and being a role model for him.
“It kind of makes life a lot easier I think, just because there’s just one thing that’s kind of all you think about. It definitely simplifies stuff.”