ESPN Golf Weekly 18 Dustin Johnson could dominate this year


Wherever you spent the past week, this much is true: It wasn’t as nice as Maui.

The appeal of the unofficial season-opener (and official year-opener) isn’t just an opportunity to watch some of the world’s best golfers in a prime-time window. It’s to live vicariously through them, as they compete at Kapalua framed by sudden rainbows and breaching whales. The entire four-day festivity serves as a wish-you-were-here postcard.

This year’s edition of the Sentry Tournament of Champions featured another spectacle. His name is Dustin Johnson. And his performance was more impressive than any of those natural wonders.

The Weekly 18 starts with DJ’s domination — and what it could mean for the next 51 weeks.

1. When Johnson is playing the way he played this week, when he’s busting drives to within inches of the cup (more on that later) and his short game is firing on all cylinders, it feels impossible that he could ever actually lose a golf tournament. Granted, we could say the same thing about a half-dozen of the world’s top players, but Johnson owns a different gear than the rest. Others might step on the gas pedal with a Sunday lead, but he just calmly crushes his drives and fires at flagsticks like it’s a Tuesday afternoon practice round.

2. Obviously, Johnson won’t lap every field he plays against this year. (Well, probably not.) The trick, of course — and the inherent difference between being Dustin Johnson and Tiger Woods — is somehow being able to take those performances from regular-season events to the major championships. How can a guy do that? That remains a riddle for every player who’s ever claimed he wants to peak four times each year. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see DJ completely dominate in a major at some point. After all, he’s already shown that kind of ability.

3. This just in: Not a whole lot fazes Johnson. The last time he held a 54-hole lead was late October, when he parlayed a six-stroke advantage into a two-shot loss to Justin Rose. Other players might still be picking away at the scar tissue, but Johnson simply turned a two-stroke lead into an eight-shot victory. Forget a great swing and smooth putting stroke. Sometimes a terrible memory can be a golfer’s best asset.

4. It certainly won’t be remembered as the Shot of the Year when all four majors and the Ryder Cup are said and done, but Dustin Johnson might have locked up Drive of the Year honors on the first Sunday of 2018. Playing the downhill, 433-yard, par-4 12th hole, Johnson hit a drive that kept going and going and going — until it stopped a few inches short of the cup. It was the kind of shot that makes you think, when DJ is doing DJ-like things, it’s not even a fair fight.

5. If he’d actually holed it for the second-ever par-4 hole-in-one in PGA Tour history, the only acceptable post-round comment from Johnson would’ve been: “Oh, man. That was so much easier than putting. I should just try to get the ball in one shot every time.”

6. Johnson won his first PGA Tour title at the 2008 Turning Stone Resort Championship, rising from the ranks of promising rookie to accomplished champion. He’s never gone a season without winning. His 11 consecutive seasons with a title now ranks behind only streaks from Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Woods, Lee Trevino and Walter Hagen. Pretty decent company.

7. And yes, as was often pointed out on social media this weekend, if we check Johnson’s list of wins, we’ll find that he went 0-for-2014. That’s why we have to be careful about how we qualify this statistic. No, he hasn’t won in 11 straight years, but because of the wrap-around schedule, he has indeed won in 11 straight seasons.

8. Congrats to Jon Rahm for winning the B flight at Kapalua. OK, so runner-up couldn’t really be considered a title contention when Johnson was running away with it, but Rahm’s performance should portend more big things for this year. He deserves more credit for his remarkable ascension. He only turned pro a year and a half ago, and at this point last year, he still didn’t own a professional win. With this finish, Rahm jumps from fourth in the world to third, and there’s a decent chance he’ll move up again before he moves down.

9. Here’s a tip for any retired caddie looking to get back into the game: Find a top-five player who’s about to defend a tournament title. For the first time since splitting from Phil Mickelson last summer, Jim “Bones” Mackay will caddie at the Sony Open this week, taking over Justin Thomas’ bag on an interim basis after his regular guy, Jimmy Johnson, suffered a foot injury. So much for course knowledge, though. In all the years they worked together, Mickelson never competed at Waialae.

10. Thomas is a noted supporter of the University of Alabama, where he played his college golf, and has been known to hang around with coach Nick Saban and some of the football players when he’s back in Tuscaloosa. He’s been vocal about his passion for the team and anticipation about Monday’s national championship game. All of which explains why Mackay, who’s been working as an on-air analyst for Golf Channel, said he’s rooting for the Crimson Tide, despite having lived in Athens, Georgia. “I want my guy to be happy,” he said with a laugh.

11. One of the comments that struck me as interesting during Tiger Woods’ pre-tournament news conference at the Hero World Challenge occurred when he was asked about the future and how much he’d be able to practice. He admitted reluctance, but said his surgeon told him, “You’ll be fine for the rest of your life, because it’s bone on bone.” There were whispers that Woods might not want to start his year at Torrey Pines greeted by chilly weather and thick rough — a site where he might have aggravated his back injury last year. But skipping Torrey would’ve contradicted his doctor’s prognosis. Now that he’s announced that he’ll return at the site of eight professional wins means he’s listening — and it means he’s gotten over that initial reluctance.

12. Here’s what qualifies as major controversy in golf: On Thursday, Rickie Fowler wore a button-down Hawaiian shirt during his round and — gasp! — it was untucked. The social media hot-take scale immediately bounced back and forth between those who believed this was the ingenuity necessary to bring the game to the millennial masses and those who thought it defied the order of fashion purity in the game. Here’s my hot take: It’s a shirt. Looked pretty good. The end.

13. Like the first few days of every new year, this past week brought headlines of players switching equipment manufacturers, essentially “playing for a new team.” I’m always surprised by how much the general public actually cares. While there can always be an adjustment period, individual specs are so, well, specialized these days, that a guy such as Sergio Garcia can jump from TaylorMade to Callaway and — once he starts playing again — hardly skip a beat. What I’m saying is that I get why this is major news for the manufacturers themselves, adding a new thoroughbred to their stable, but the initial interest level always outweighs the eventual impact.

14. Since we’re talking equipment, new golf technologies TwistFace (TaylorMade) and Jailbreak (Callaway) were introduced this past week. Not to go all Dad Joke on you, but since when did technology have to sound like a dastardly comic-book villain? Besides, I still think Big Bertha sounds way more intimidating.

15. I wrote a column that will run this week about Don Byers, a real-life Thorton Melon in golf spikes, who is going back to school at age 61 to compete for the Bellevue University golf team. I had a blast talking with him for the story, a conversation we each punctuated with plenty of laughs. But I also wonder if Byers could be a pioneer. Think about it: If you’re an older golfer with eligibility left, would you rather tee it up with the same foursome at your club every day, or go hang with some youngsters and see how your game stacks up in a collegiate atmosphere, potentially traveling to great courses on the school’s dime? As Byers said to me, “That’s the beauty of this game. In what other sport can you do this?”

16. Not that you want to take fantasy golf advice from a guy who picked Thomas to repeat (he finished T-22) and touted Cameron Smith as a not-so-sleepy sleeper (he finished T-17), but I’ve always given an edge to Sony Open competitors who played the previous week at Kapalua. Granted, they’re completely opposite golf courses, and trudging four rounds at last week’s track is enough to wear down anyone, but little things like acclimating to the time change and being prepared for competition should offer some advantage. Hey, it worked last year, when Thomas parlayed his year-opening victory into another one at Waialae the next week.

17. I’ll save you the Google search and ensuing math: There are 20 players making the 37-minute (give or take) flight from Maui to Oahu this week, playing the entire Hawaii Swing. On a ball-strikers’ course, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama and Marc Leishman should be among the favorites from this group.

18. Here is some real, actual, not-fake news: Fowler was named by the National League of Junior Cotillions as No. 1 on its list of “Ten Best-Mannered People” for 2017. That might sound like a bittersweet consolation prize after another major-less season, but it’s a weighty designation. Others on the list behind him included David Beckham, Selena Gomez and Meghan Markle — and yes, even Matt Kuchar, who finished ninth. Not bad for the same Fowler whose manners were once questioned when he dared to wear his cap backwards at Augusta National.

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