Jan
9
2013
Dustin Johnson hammers his way to victory
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour
DJ: I don't lay up.

DJ: I don’t lay up.

After days wondering when the golf would start–and count officially–the 2013 Hyundai Tournament of Champions ended on a high note under sunny skies with long-hitting Dustin Johnson winning by four shots over the defending champ Steve Stricker, who announced his semi-retirement his pre-tourney press conference last week. Johnson, who has now notched seven victories on the PGA Tour, overpowered The Plantation Course, which, as a beast of a track, holds its own. 

He showed the depth of his talent and athleticism in season opener. Speaking of which, DJ continued his winning streak at weather-shortened 54-hole events. He’s now batting .1000 and earned Ws at the last three on the PGA Tour (2013 Hyundai Tournament of Champions, 2011 The Barclays, 2009 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am). No joke, I was already calling my bookie (if I had one) when it became clear the tournament would be cut to three rounds! — next time we should just hand him the trophy and save everyone from wasting the effort. (Kidding.) But it’s no surprise he was atop the leaderboard on Tuesday afternoon (first Tuesday finish since 2002).

Shrewd Twitter followers (and a friend in England who cashed-in enough money to cover Christmas) will vouch that I tipped DJ before the week even started. He was the first player to arrive in Kapalua and played six practice rounds, starting on Friday, December 28th in the morning. DJ even teed it up with San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain on New Year’s Eve — the two also rang in 2013 together, along with DJ’s new lady friend Paulina Gretzky (he introduced me to her as his “girlfriend”, so take that FWIW). She was spotted watching him in the gallery on his way to posting a closing 5-under 68, 16-under total.

Johnson, who became the first player since Tiger Woods to win in six-consecutive years right out of college, didn’t make the day as ho-hum as the result suggests. He has a penchant for adding drama in closing holes (or rounds)–rewind to the ’11 Open Championship on No. 14 and the ’10 PGA Championship on No. 18, the 72nd hole, aka the bunker-not-bunker fiasco. And of course we can’t forget the ’10 U.S. Open when DJ headed into the final round with a four-shot lead and went on to post a wild 82.

Johnson plays aggressively–or recklessly, as some may call his style. One thing’s sure: even if he’s advised by his caddie Bobby Brown (or anyone) to throttle back and tee off with anything but his driver, he will still pull driver. I heard a few people blaming Bobby for “letting” DJ hit driver when it would have been more astute to adopt a more conservative strategy. Well, Dustin does what Dustin wants. Bobby can try to talk him into a 3-wood or 4-iron, but if DJ doesn’t feel like it, it ain’t happening.

There’s a fine line between “aggressive” and “stupid,” though. I’m all about going for firing at pins and bombing drives on every hole, but it’s not always the right move or full-proof. It certainly makes things more intriguing.

Dustin was cruising with a five-shot lead after seven holes. He pulled driver on the par-5 9th playing dead into the wind and pushed an errant tee shot into No Man’s Land. It turned out to be a lost ball and DJ re-teed…with a driver. This time it found the fairway and he reached the green in two and managed to save bogey.

“It was nowhere near ho-hum,” said Johnson, referring to his road to the winner’s circle. “I had to really fight hard.  Got off to a good start.  I was really pleased with 3-under through eight, because for some reason, I think for me, the front plays tougher than the back.

“Obviously I’m thinking I’m going to birdie 9, and then just made a Godawful swing at a driver.  Hit it in the right bushes. But I came back on the next and hit a good drive and hit it on the green and 2-putt for bogey.  So it wasn’t too bad.  I was a little bit frustrated with that swing I made with the driver.  But that’s another hole where it cost me a couple shots just making a poor swing. ”

He doesn’t discriminate from missing it way left, like he did on his drive on No. 13. The ball was going too hard and left for the “Garrity Bunker” to save it from rolling into the crap (trees, bushes, grass, bugs, and all sort of different greens). Somehow, the search crew found the ball and DJ attempted to punch it out and it moved about a foot. His second try landed in the fairway and he went on to post a double-bogey. Suddenly, DJ’s lead was cut to one over Stricker.

“If I had (no. 13) to do over, I definitely would not hit driver,” admitted Johnson.

Naturally, on the 14th tee, Johnson didn’t think twice over grabbing his driver on the short par-4. He chipped in for eagle to seal the deal.

For many other players, a double-bogey under the same circumstances would have rattled them so badly that they wouldn’t have been able to recover. But as DJ reminded us, he’s had some practice.

“I’ve done it enough times that it doesn’t really bother me anymore,” said Johnson, laughing. “I’ve been in this situation enough now and I’ve made enough double-bogeys in my life, that, you know, it’s just another hole, and you’ve got a lot more holes to go where you can make it up.

“Fortunately today I made a double and then the next hole I made eagle.  That definitely was the turning point of the day, because walking off 13, I was like, oh, no, here it goes again. But I came right back, focused and hit two great shots.”

Some will argue Dustin’s aggressive mentality is why he’s won seven times, but others will contend that with his talent, he should have many more, including a couple of majors. He’s still young and learning. Well, let’s revisit this in 20 years.

Stricker, who is nothing but class, spoke highly of Dustin, and he even offered DJ some veteran advice as they strolled up the 15th fairway. (Which isn’t considered “advice” in the sense where it’d violate Rule 18-1 — it wasn’t intended as such and after the fact. I can ask rules maestro Jon Brendle for the technical wording if you’d like.)

“He’s an impressive player, has a lot of talent,” said Stricker, who impressively managed to walk 54 holes in less than 30 hours at The Plantation Course (which is the most difficult and extreme trek of the year — it’s built on the side of volcano cliff.  “He hits the ball a mile.  But as I was talking to him out there, I was like:  Dude, what are you doing?  He took out driver on a couple holes and he let me back in the game.

“But that was after he chipped in for eagle on 14 and we are walking up 15, and I was like: Why don’t you take iron out, make me having to make birdies instead of you hitting it in the trees and opening it up for me. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know.’

That’s classic. Stricker and DJ are practically polar opposites on and off the golf course, but I enjoyed watching their contrasting styles on Tuesday.

Added the semi-retiree: “Dustin’s got a lot of talent and it looks like very little fear in him, because he’ll hit one a little crooked but he’ll pull out that driver again and try it again.  And he pulled it off.  Especially at 14, that was the deciding shot and chip for the tournament.”

Bottom line: Dustin has…can I say balls?…guts.

***********

Hats off to the tournament staff, volunteers, grounds crew and Tour officials–the heroes of the week–for handling a tough situation to the best of their ability and then managing to turn it into a success. Kapalua is truly a special place (not just because I go early for vacation). Just ask Steve Stricker and K.J. Choi, along with the rest of the field with perhaps one or two exceptions, and they will tell you the same.

Let’s hope the event stays put (well, it could be a week later in the schedule or even after Sony with things changing in the upcoming year). Because let’s be real, traveling to Maui for a guaranteed paycheck with last place raking in 65K isn’t exactly a chore, and moving it to Southern Cali or elsewhere won’t entice Tiger or Rory to play.

Note to the no-show champs (and I know you’re exhausted from the wheelbarrows of cash you made in the silly season), but unless there are extenuating circumstances, step up and be a team player, and support your Tour’s All-Star game.

It’s not like anyone is asking them for a kidney.

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)