Dustin Johnson Reveals How Controlling His Nerves Paved The Route To Being World Number One

Dustin Johnson, super-long hitter off the tee and king of the World Golf Championship events. Only Tiger Woods may have won more than Johnson’s six victories in the WGC tournaments in total, but ‘DJ’ is the only player to win each of the four at their separate venues.

Now 35, the South Carolina-born player came so close to clinching both the Masters and PGA Championships in 2019, finishing joint second alongside Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele at Augusta, and as runner-up to Koepka at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale New York.

It means that although he is yet to add to his US Open win at the Oakmont Country Club in 2016, Johnson has now finished in second place in the other three events – the only one not previously mentioned being The Open Championship in 2011, at Royal St George’s, when Darren Clarke won his only major.

Winning his sixth WGC in Mexico in February also took Johnson to 20 PGA Tour wins and, by the end of the season, he had risen to seventh on the money list, with career earnings totalling over $60m.

The number 20 was also prevalent in the same month in 2017, as he was the 20th world number one pro golfer, since the rankings began in 1986. He reached that position for the fifth time in his career in April 2019 but lasted just five weeks, with nemesis Koepka overtaking him, as he tells RSNG…

RSNG Take us through staying at number one for a whole year in 2017 and trying to get back to that level of consistency?
DUSTIN JOHNSON, ‘THE HITMAN’ GOLFER
‘I am very proud to have been able to have done that in 2017, as it was very tough to do – it’s something I didn’t think was possible in this new era of golf. Of course, in the past, there were names up there and you knew someone could be far and away better, like Tiger.’

‘It seems a lot more open right now in this era of golf, so to stay for so long was incredibly satisfying.’

RSNG Is there a pressure associated with being world number one?
DJ
‘In the first few weeks after you get to that level the pressure is immense. You know you have achieved something you’ve always aspired to and the idea that someone might snatch it back off you is scary!’

‘But then the more time goes on, the more you come to terms with the fact you won’t have that title forever, so you need to savour it and enjoy it.’

‘Towards the end of that year I was even looking forward to re-taking the number one tag when I lost it.’

‘I know it sounds weird to wish it away, in effect, but you move on to the next challenge and the next achievement and re-taking the number one would be a big thing, which it became.’

RSNG Tell us about the back injury that thwarted your progress?
DJ
‘It was just one of those innocuous strains, but it certainly threw me off for the rest of the year and I felt like I was playing some decent golf leading up to that point… the best golf of my career, in fact.’

RSNG Is time away from golf frightening when you can’t play?
DJ
‘The worst. It’s mental torture. You have to keep telling yourself you will be back, and it will be okay, but in the back of your head there is always a small voice questioning whether that’s true. It’s tough.’

‘For any golfer, it’s about control and using that control to your advantage – the one thing I won’t ever do is blame anyone else’

RSNG That must have tested your reputation in golf as one of the calmest players around, I mean, have you always been that way, or have you developed that mental mindset along the way?
DJ
‘People think that I am unflappable, but I do get nervous when I am playing out there. I try and use that feeling to my advantage, because the more times I am in a situation, the more I feel that I can understand what control I have over things and also what my body is doing and how it reacts in a certain situation.’

‘I don’t think that nerves or handling nerves gets any easier, but I am always trying to do a good job of controlling it. I would say that what helps is knowing what tends to happen from you in those circumstances.’

‘For me, any other golfer and literally anyone out there in most walks of life – it’s about control and using that control to your advantage. The one thing I won’t ever do is blame anyone else.’

RSNG There were quite a few changes to the schedule on this year’s tour and calendar. How did you fell about those?
DJ
‘I liked the changes in the schedule, and they were a little bit different, but ending the season a little bit earlier fit pretty well, at least for me, anyway.’

‘It’s the first year that these changes have taken place and it hasn’t really affected me too much, as I will always play the same tournaments that I have over the last four or five years, anyway.’

‘So, however they fall within the calendar is just the way that it’s going to be, and I had one event and then a week’s break for quite a bit and then a fortnight’s break.’

‘It has literally no effect on me how long a break I have between tournaments or when those breaks come in the calendar, because they are what they are.’

RSNG What did you think of the rule changes for 2019? Do any of them stick out over the course of the season?
DJ
‘Well, I didn’t really read the rule book and I don’t think that many of the players on the Tour did, either. But I know that the first tournament of the year in Hawaii, where they had displayed the ones that were more likely to affect us and crop up more often. So, I had a brief look at those and that was it.’

‘So, when I hit a bit of a wild drive at the fourth hole at Kapalua, it went towards a hazard and a marshal there, told me where to find it. I went in there and saw a TaylorMade ball addressed it and hit it… only to find out that it wasn’t mine and so I went over to the officials and told them that it wasn’t mine.’

‘They then told me that I was in violation of rule 6.3.c which states that a golfer mustn’t make a stroke at the wrong ball, and they duly give me a two-stroke penalty. I mean, it was my fault because I saw a TaylorMade logo on the ball and I just assumed that it was my ball.’

‘It was like a jungle in there, so I thought that if I moved anything around it, I would get a penalty. So, instead, I just hit the ball and hoped for the best. When I realised that it wasn’t mine and told them, they charged me two shots, haha!’

‘What can you do? That is not a mistake that will ever happen to me again. I will be more diligent, and I will make sure that I am playing my ball and playing within the rules of golf. That was just bad luck.’

‘The other thing is the rule change for dropping the ball. That was always the case that you drop it from shoulder height, but they changed that to dropping it from the knee and you’ve seen it on TV or at the course and it just looks wrong and awful.’

‘If there is a caddie standing there waiting for the ball to get close and then removing the flag – that’s something which distracts me’

RSNG Would you agree most of the rules are moving the sport in the right direction?
DJ
‘I don’t want to be seen or heard as complaining at every rule change, and I would say, for example, that the one allowing shorts to be worn in a practice round is great. In this day and age, it is totally acceptable to wear shorts at a golf course and especially when it’s quite hot out, because we play at some events which are very warm.’

‘I do agree that in competition, wearing pants is very much the right thing to do because it does look nice and presentable. But when you are playing on the off-days on the lead up to the competitive days, I don’t see any issue with wearing shorts on those days.’

RSNG Are you a flag in or flag out guy, when you are putting? Or is there any exception to that rule, for you at least?
DJ
‘I don’t really tend to putt with the flag in at all, except maybe when it’s a really long putt and that’s instead of having my caddie, Austin, stand there. I would rather just leave the flag in and then it can be removed once the ball has stopped.’

‘For me, if there is a caddie or someone standing there in anticipation, waiting for the ball to get close and then removing the flag – that’s something which distracts me. That makes it easier for me just to leave the pin in and putt.’

‘But as far as leaving the pin in, it’s more about me being able to see the hole, because that’s what’s important, right? The target and making that putt. Because if I hit a putt and it hits the pin and bounces out, then I’m going to lose it, haha!’

WHAT NEXT? Check out Dustin Johnson and Jason Day take on a game of ‘Horse’.