Dustin Johnson: Practice Pays Off

Dustin Johnson never got on the course in the first two aborted attempts to kick off the 2013 Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Kapalua resort on Maui, Hawaii.

So it was a wonder that he was able to shoot 11-under par in Monday’s 36-hole catch-up day. He shot 4-under 69 in the morning session and 7-under 66 in the afternoon. He got better as the day wore on and the wind wound down. But it wasn’t that. 

Playing all the way through December 9th in the year-end unofficial events reserved for the very best players, he didn’t have much of an off season. He went so deep into the end of the season, he only had two weeks off. I didn’t really appreciate that until I looked at the calendar.

The good news was that he didn’t touch a club for those two weeks. The bad news was he had to get on a plane Christmas week in order to get to Maui to squeeze some practice rounds in:

I didn’t really come out to — I knew the course already.  I came out more just to practice for myself.  I had new equipment, new driver, new irons, so needed to play with those.  I just needed to play because I had taken two weeks off.

And play he did. He actually managed to squeeze six practice rounds in before the tournament began. There is nothing more comforting than a bunch of practice rounds on a course you’re about to play (one of the reasons I never minded back-to-back weeks on the road; you don’t get in on Monday, you have a week to practice at the next city…and the next).

And it paid big dividends. The big gale winds finally calmed down substantially, but it was still blowing enough that it was a major factor on every shot. The 9th hole is a 521-yard par-5 playing uphill and into the wind. Johnny Miller said the tees were moved up to 495 yards and nobody in the field was able to hit the green in two.

But on Johnson’s first 18, he only missed one green, had three 3-putt greens and still shot 69:

I played really well.  Just the three 3‑putts, could have been a little bit lower. I hit the ball really well.  I only missed one green and in this wind, that’s pretty good.  Drove it pretty well, too.

Just it’s really tough once you get on the green.  I had three 3‑putts, but other than that, I played really solid.  I made some short ones but you know, it’s just tough to read them and with this much wind, you’ve got a right‑to‑left putt and the wind is coming off the left and you’re playing outside left, that’s tough.

There was enough wind to make you assume that the wind would be stronger than the break of the green, in effect, blowing the ball uphill. But at least the balls weren’t oscillating on the greens like that had been:

No, the ball is really not moving.  But it’s the gusts of wind that kind of blow you off balance; so you’re oscillating a little bit.

In putting, when you’re trying to stand so still — I exhale and don’t breathe when I make my stroke so that my rib cage isn’t expanding into my arms — it would be very easy for windy conditions to cause 3-putts just due to the player being moved off kilter.

Steve Stricker was alone in 2nd, three shots back and he had his own run-ins with the wind:

You know, everything is a challenge.  We started the second 18 on No. 10 today [354 yards uphill and into the wind] and it was blowing.  You know, I hit a driver and I had 97 yards and I pulled out a 7‑iron from 97 yards.  I didn’t get it there.  I hit it about 80 yards — well, 80 to the front.  I didn’t get it to the front.  I could have gotten there, but you’re trying to keep it down and there’s all these challenges and I couldn’t even get my pitch shot to the hole.  It’s just hard to judge, because we are not used to that kind of wind.

But the other more troubling issue for Stricker was a health issue. After his rounds, he explained his noticeable limp:

Nobody knows if it’s a muscle with pressure on the sciatic nerve or if there’s a problem with a disk.  My back feels great.  I don’t feel tight.  I don’t feel stiff.  Just every time I get over to my left side, I’m getting a shooting pain down my leg.

So hence sometimes I don’t get over there and so I’m just kind of — like I say, I’m not hitting it full strength and I’m just trying to keep it in front of me and play the smart shots.

My tempo was good because I can’t swing at it very hard and that’s a blessing in this wind.  So you hit a lot of chip shots underneath the wind.  It was uncomfortable to play but it never really got any worse than when it really started.  It felt as crappy on the first hole as the last hole.  (Laughter).

So the guy’s playing on a leg and a half in blustery winds and still shoots, 71, 67.

Bubba Watson is alone in 3rd four strokes back followed by Keegan Bradley and Brandt Snedeker at T4 and five back at 6-under. And Keegan Bradley had his own bizarre yardage snippets:

I’ve been hitting 8‑irons from 100 yards.  I hit a 9‑iron today from 185. So I mean, it’s — I hit a 7‑iron today from 236, and I also hit 7 from 130.  So you know, yardages don’t really matter.  It’s basically, you’ve got to be a good feel player in this wind. You’ve really got to feel it.  You can’t just go by numbers.

But it takes guys like these who hit the ball as solidly as they do to be able to play with that kind of feel. So the rest of us should keep working on our ball striking.

So, 18 more holes on Tuesday — boy, that feels odd — to get to 54 holes and make it an official tournament.

Oh, and did I mention that the last two 54-hole PGA Tour tournaments, the 2009 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the 2011 Barclays, were won by Dustin Johnson?

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