Johnson's confidence shown through the smile, not words
TROON, SCOTLAND >> The smile spoke louder than anything Dustin Johnson had to say Wednesday at the British Open.
His game has never been better. Just one month ago, Johnson was known as golf's best athlete who had won every year he has been on the PGA Tour — the longest streak since Tiger Woods — but who had everything go wrong in the majors.
Now he's the U.S. Open champion and a favorite at the British Open who can move to No. 1 in the world with a victory.
But that's not what brought the biggest smile.
It was a question about whether he could think of anything that stressed him out.
Anyone who has spent time around the 32-year-old American during his eight years and 11 victories on tour — and finally, a major — knows Johnson doesn't get too worked up over anything. Not the two-shot penalty on the final hole of the 2010 PGA Championship for grounding his club in a bunker ("I still don't think that was a bunker," he said). Not the three-putt from 12 feet that cost him a shot at the U.S. Open last year.
Not even a peculiar decision by the USGA at Oakmont last month in which officials told him he might be penalized one stroke after his round, meaning Johnson had to play the last seven holes not knowing his own score. He played them in even par to win by three.
Another question: Has the attention as a major champion been difficult to manage?
"I haven't noticed," Johnson said.
Johnson is that rare breed of golfer who can manage to entertain without being all that revealing.
Even so, his level of comfort was never more evident, particularly when he finished his 20-minute news conference. Walking down from the stage, he plopped his 6-foot-4 frame on the top step and held court with a small group of reporters to talk about his strategy at Royal Troon, his equipment change for a week of links golf (a 2-iron and 3-iron, only three wedges) and how many shots he has to give his future father-in-law, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, when they play.
"He won't play with me," Johnson said. "He only plays if he can be my partner."
Who can blame the Great One for that?
Coming off victories in the U.S. Open and a World Golf Championship, Johnson has moved past Jordan Spieth to No. 2 in the world, still trailing by a decent margin Jason Day at No. 1. Those are based on numbers. The eye test would suggest Johnson might be the player to beat this week, especially equipped with all that confidence.
Johnson was told he was a co-favorite with Day among the bookies. He was asked if he was good with that or if he ever cared.
"Honestly, I don't care," he said. "I mean, I like my chances. But I go into every tournament liking my chances."
The mystery is Royal Troon, a links Johnson had never seen until he arrived after a weekend in Ireland. He was told the opening three holes are par 4s that measure under 400 yards, and that seemed to intrigue him. Playing the last few days with the prevailing wind at his back, he hit driver on them and could get it near the green on all but the second hole. The objective on that one is to keep it just short of the greenside bunkers.
He reached the 555-yard fourth hole with a driver and a 5-iron.
"There's not an individual here ... very surprised by what's going on," defending champion Zach Johnson said. "He's a supreme athlete, and it just so happens that his sport — for all of us, unfortunately — is golf. Very talented. I mean, we talk about his prowess. There's not that many guys that can do what he does."
Spieth, his partner at the Presidents Cup last year, has been preaching for months that he has the most talent on tour and that winning a major was only a matter of time. Spieth said this again two weeks before the U.S. Open.
"I think it was just floodgates opening, which I've said for a long time now," Spieth said. "It happened, and it happened again. So it's no surprise."
Johnson's long strides look more like a swagger when he's playing well. His confidence is obvious. Still, he keeps everything so simple — his golf included — that he still recognizes he has to play good golf over 72 holes to have a chance.
"I don't expect any more from myself," he said. "I always expect to come out and perform and to contend. But I mean, it's definitely a little bit different coming out and not trying to win that first major. That's the biggest difference."
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