LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | There are various steps in the annual renewal process of the PGA Tour season and this week – the Farmers Insurance Open at stop-and-stare-worthy Torrey Pines – feels like the moment when the new year fully begins.
The first event at Kapalua has stars and scenery but feels almost like an exhibition and not everyone makes the two-week trip to Hawaii.
Last week at the American Express brought the tour back to the mainland and this week – complete with paragliders floating on the wind kicking off the cliffs – has the big-time feel that comes with having six of the top 10 in the world.
As unofficial starts to the year go, this is it even if Tiger isn’t here.
Dustin Johnson is.
Typically Johnson would have already played once this year but for the first time in 13 years, he didn’t win on the PGA Tour in 2021 and thereby didn’t qualify for the trip to Maui.
Since being the star in the Americans’ Ryder Cup victory at Whistling Straits – Johnson became the first U.S. player to go 5-0 since 1979 – he has played one forgettable event, finishing well down the line in the CJ Cup.
Johnson has quietly slipped to fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking, hardly a worrisome decline, but for someone who has spent 135 weeks at No. 1, it’s a different spot.
And a different year.
“I was just frustrated so a break is what I needed,” Johnson said of his extended absence from competition, a break that ends here and will take him more than 8,300 miles away next week to play in the controversial Saudi International, where he is the defending champion.
“I just needed a reset of mind, body, everything.”
It’s not as if 2021 was a complete bust. It’s just that Johnson didn’t give himself many chances to win. He had good weeks but not great weeks and he missed the cut in both the Masters (where he was the defending champion) and the PGA Championship at Kiawah in his home state of South Carolina.
Johnson lost faith, or perhaps he lost patience, with his driver. At his best, Johnson has been able to stand on a tee knowing he could rip a power fade into play.
It wasn’t quite as reliable last year and when Johnson missed fairways, they tended to be big misses. He also missed left more often, evidence that his left to right ball flight had become inconsistent.
“Obviously I put a lot of good rounds together, but I just couldn’t put four rounds together. It felt like when I was hitting the driver good, I wasn’t hitting my irons very well. If I was hitting my irons well, I wasn’t driving it good. Just nothing was matching up.” – Dustin Johnson
When Johnson received TaylorMade’s new driver, the enthusiasm returned. Not that Johnson hurried back to the golf course.
“It wasn’t that bad, but … it was frustrating to me just because I just wasn’t consistent,” Johnson said.
“Obviously I put a lot of good rounds together, but I just couldn’t put four rounds together. It felt like when I was hitting the driver good, I wasn’t hitting my irons very well. If I was hitting my irons well, I wasn’t driving it good. Just nothing was matching up.
“It just gets frustrating when you do it for eight months straight, especially after the fall (when he won the FedEx Cup and the Masters) I had the year before, it was really frustrating.”
Pressed on how much golf he didn’t play during his break, Johnson admitted that he played two rounds before getting back to work a week ago.
He was busy hanging out, doing some skiing and a lot of fishing.
Asked to handicap how good a skier and fisherman he is, Johnson admitted he’s pretty good at both.
“Maybe a one at skiing and fishing … I mean it’s fishing, it’s not catching. Some days I’m a plus-6, some days I’m an 18, it just all depends,” Johnson said.
When Johnson showed up at Torrey Pines on Sunday to play a practice round on the North Course, he was struck by the feeling of being back at his version of the office after a long time away.
“I did step on the first hole … I’m like, ‘Whoa, this fairway’s narrow,’ ” Johnson said.
“I’ve been playing at home in Florida, the fairway’s a little bit wider. A little like I was hitting down a hallway, but it’s nice. It’s a really good spot for me to know what kind of shape my game’s in.”
Torrey Pines – particularly the South Course which hosted the U.S. Open last June – is the most demanding test of the new year. The fairways are soft, making it play long, and the greens are heavily contoured. That’s why the list of recent winners includes the names Rahm, Leishman, Rose, Day and, going back a few years, Woods time after time.
Unlike some years when the fog or the rain or blustery storms have blown through this typically gorgeous piece of Pacific coastline, the forecast this week is for nearly ideal conditions.
“If your mindset’s in the right spot, especially for me, I’m going to play well. It’s just when you’re struggling or when you’re trying to grind or when you’re trying to do too much, it’s a very difficult game,” Johnson said.
“When you’re relaxed, you’re confident in what you’re doing and, like you said, you’re in the right head space, then sometimes the game comes fairly easy.”
Johnson knows the feeling. It’s why he’s trying to get it back.
Top: Dustin Johnson on the first green during the final round of The CJ Cup at the Summit Club last October. Photo: Alex Goodlett, Getty Images
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