ERIN, Wis. — When last we saw Dustin Johnson on the stage of a major golf tournament, the No. 1 player in the world stood under a big oak tree at Augusta National, a minute or so before his tee time, where he explained that his injured back was forcing him to pull out of the Masters.
It was as sudden as it was shocking. Here Johnson was, the prohibitive favorite, playing the best golf of his life, the best golfer in the world by a country mile, moments from starting a 2017 major season that, well, let’s just say it, had the possibility of a Grand Slam written all over it.
And with the slip off a stair, poof, it was gone.
Fast forward two months, to the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, and here comes Johnson, his back all healed up, still the prohibitive favorite, still the best golfer in the world by a country mile, which says something considering he’s not quite back to his April form.
In fact, the gap between Johnson and world No. 2 Rory McIlory is larger than the gap between McIlory and world No. 38 Brandt Snedeker. Johnson has lapped the field in a sport where that simply doesn’t happen unless you are, well, Tiger Woods.
So yeah, that’s where we are right now with Johnson, minus a few majors obviously, but still. And so there he was Wednesday, burning through question after question in his typical polite-but-numb demeanor, until it came to the Masters.
The accident, if you don’t recall, came on the eve of the tournament when he headed outside to move a car parked in the driveway. Wearing socks, he slipped walking down a short flight of stairs, landed on his back and knocked it so out of whack the next day he struggled just to bend down to tee up his own ball.
He tried to give it a go on the range, but on his walk to the first tee realized it wasn’t happening, ergo the impromptu press conference under the big oak tree.
So when the question came Wednesday if he’d watched the tournament on TV, Johnson unloaded in what for him was an eruption of Vesuvius proportions.
“I couldn’t really do much else, I was laying on the couch, and there wasn’t a lot on TV other than the Masters,” he explained. “So, yes, I watched a lot of it, unfortunately, it from the couch. I just wish that I would have been playing, especially leading into the Masters I was playing the best golf that I’ve ever played.”
This is as animated as the guy ever gets, publicly anyway. For all his physical attributes – the 6-foot-4 Johnson has been described as maybe the most physically gifted golfer ever – his greatest gift might just be how unflappable he is.
Take last year’s U.S. Open for example.
When the USGA approached Johnson on the 12th hole during the final round of last year’s U.S. Open to tell him that he might incur a penalty for a moving ball, the most enraged person on the hole that day was … Curtis Strange, on-course reporter for Fox, who was incredulous after getting rebuffed by officials whom he’d asked for an explanation.
“Really?” Strange, the last golfer to win back-to-back U.S. Opens, asked. “Really?”
On 18, after Johnson had incurred that penalty and still won, the most enraged person was … Jack Nicklaus, who took the USGA to task for their non-call call.
“You either have [a penalty] or you don’t have one,” Nicklaus said.
It was ridiculous and unfair and players were lining up on Twitter to take up for Johnson, but all through it – from 12 all the way to 18 – the only person not consumed by the what-if of the moment was … Johnson.
Monday he was in Los Angeles to witness the birth of his second son. Tuesday he was walking down the seventh fairway at Erin Hills, phone in hand, FaceTime-ing with his family back home in the middle of a practice round. Thursday, he’ll tee it up to defend his U.S. Open title.
“You just do it,” he said when asked how he’s managed to compartmentalize his whirlwind 48 hours. “I don’t know. I wish I had an explanation on how I do it, but I don’t. … It helps that [finacée] Paulina and my son, they’re at home now. … Obviously that’s a big relief, not having to worry about them. But now I’ve got to play golf. This is why I’m here. I’m here to play golf. I’m here to compete. So that’s what my job is this week.”
On the eve of what will be his first major of 2017, in what had shaped up to be the Year of DJ, Dustin Johnson is finally ready to go. Erin Hills, playing a monster 7,700-something yards, plays right into his favor.
He’s expected to win, he should win, and he knows it. It’s all right there for him to take.
“I’m here to compete,” he said. “I’m here to give myself a chance to win on Sunday.”
As long as he’s standing upright, he should do just fine.
More U.S. Open coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Viewer’s guide: Erin Hills breakdown, TV times, picks and more!
• Power rankings: Top 10 expert picks for Erin Hills
• Watch: Who wins at tough Erin Hills?
• Johnson ready for Open after birth of baby