They say it’s lonely at the top. But Dustin Johnson isn’t about to lose sleep over it.
Johnson debuted at No 1 in 2017 and has intermittently held the title every year since.
“I’m kind of used to it, I guess, if you can say that,” said the 36-year-old American during a press call from Saudi Arabia, where he’s gearing up to compete in the 3rd edition of the Saudi International; he won the tournament in 2019 and was runner-up last year.
“I don’t really think about it, especially not while playing golf. I try not to. It kind of drives me to get better. I use it as a tool.”
For now, he’s excited to focus his energy on mastering the greens in Saudi. The third edition of the Saudi International tournament runs from February 4-7.
“It’s a golf course that I thought was set up well for me. It’s a fun course to play. Obviously I had success here the last two years, so I enjoy it,” he said.
“You have to drive it well. The greens got a lot of slope in them so you need to be able to control your ball coming into it. But if you drive it well, you can definitely make a lot of birdies, just because you can get some short clubs in your hand," he added.
And though Johnson may usually seem calm and collected, it isn’t always the reality.
“I love the game but it’s very frustrating at times. That’s why I love it. You’re never going to perfect the game. Right now I’m the best player in the world, but I’ve hit some of the worst shots you’ve ever seen,” he said.
“I had no control of my emotions and could not gather myself”
It’s hard to glance at Johnson and not recall the tearful interview he gave after his record-breaking 2020 Masters win.
On TV, Johnson struggled to speak as he fought back emotion; he had just scored a record 268, 20-under-par, beating the previous record by two strokes. (It was jointly held by Tiger Woods, who set it in 1997, and Jordan Spieth, who matched it in 2015.)
“It just meant so much to me. I was so happy and excited. Having the family there, it was incredible. I’m not really sure what I was saying then, but I did get a little emotional. it was obviously tears of joy,” he recounted.
“That was one time where I had no control of my emotions and could not gather myself.”
How has it been since he’s had the Masters Green Jacket?
“I’ve been getting a lot of respect and praise from friends and fellow competitors. It’s definitely a nice jacket to have in the closet,” said Johnson.
But sine the 2020 Masters tournament, originally supposed to take place in April, was pushed back to November due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Johnson will only gets four months with the green jacket before the next Masters rolls around. Will he be permitted to wear it past then?
“Well, hopefully, I’ll just get another one in April,” said Johnson, with a smile in his voice.
Aside from disturbing the Masters schedule, the pandemic has also impacted the way golf is played for players like Johnson: in particular, there are no fans watching.
“My whole career I’ve played in front of a ton of people every week so it’s definitely something you have to get used to. The energy’s not there, for sure. For me, whether the fans are there or not, I still felt the same coming down the stretch,” said Johnson.
“I don’t think that our scores are too good”
Shortly before Johnson’s press conference, the R&A and the United States Golf Association announced proposals to set limits on driver lengths — specifically to 46 inches. Does Johnson feel like golf needs to have regulations in place to control distance?
“I don’t think so. If you look at the scores over the last 15 years, scores aren’t really any different. I don’t feel like the game is too easy by any means,” said Johnson.
He added that course conditions play a major factor in the results.
“If you’re playing a golf course that’s soft, and really good greens, I mean, we’re gonna shoot low. But, you take that same golf course and make it firm and fast, with a little bit of rough, and the scores are gonna change dramatically. It’s all conditions,” he said.
“I don’t think we’re hitting it too far, and I don’t think that our scores are too good. If they want to do something, that’s fine. Obviously, we’ll all adjust to it and go from there. But as of right now, I don’t think there’s anything they need to do,” he added.
"I don’t look past the tournament that I’m playing that week"
For the time being, Johnson and the rest of the players in Saudi have something more pertinent to deal with — jet lag. Johnson was in the West Coast of the United States last weekend and will be back there a weekend from now. How does he cope?
“Staying hydrated really helps, and maybe getting a workout in that first day you arrive somewhere, just to get the body feeling good. It’s difficult. But you do the best you can,” said Johnson, emphasising the importance of a steady sleep schedule, whether you’re on a plane or grounded.
“I’m looking forward to the whole season, obviously the Majors, but [also] every event I play. I don’t set goals of ‘I wanna win a certain amount of tournaments’, or ‘I want to win this tournament’. I don’t look past the tournament that I’m playing that week,” said Johnson.
Perhaps it’s that mentality that made him the first player to ever win each of the four World Golf Championship events.
At 36 years old, Johnson feels like he’s in the prime of his career, even as young players such as Collin Morikawa and Victor Hovland, both 23, and Matt Wolf, 21, continue to emerge.
“I know I’m not young, but I still feel like I’m one of the younger players. I guess I’m kind of middle of the pack now. I’ve been on tour for a while, so I’m kind of a veteran. I don’t feel that way yet — hopefully it stays that way for a little bit longer.”