ERIN, Wis. — River Jones Johnson and his mother are home, healthy and comfortable, which has freed dad’s mind to get back to work. For Dustin Johnson, that means trying to defend his U.S. Open championship and reclaim his standing as the most dominant player in golf.
“I don’t have to worry about them,” Johnson said Wednesday. “That’s a big relief. Now I’ve got to play golf. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to play golf. I’m here to compete. That is what my job is this week.”
River Jones Johnson was born Monday night, the second child of Johnson and Paulina Gretzky. Once dad was satisfied his family was OK, Johnson traveled to Erin Hills, arriving late Tuesday. He practiced and played nine holes on Wednesday, but doesn’t feel behind in his preparation. After missing the cut at the Memorial last month, he traveled to Erin Hills and spent two days mapping out the course.
“I like the golf course,” he said. “I think it sets up well for me.”
That might be an understatement. The 50-yard-wide fairways should allow Johnson to take advantage of his most valuable asset, his length off the tee. Johnson claimed his first major at Oakmont last year with one of the best displays of driving the golf ball seen in quite some time at a major. He’ll try to duplicate the performance at Erin Hills.
“You have to hit the fairways here,” he said, “and they do give us a little bit of room here, which is nice.
“But it’s going to be a long week,” he added. “Every part of the game has to work well if I’m going to have a chance.”
When last seen at a major championship, Johnson was telling us he had injured his back slipping down some stairs and couldn’t play in the Masters. A heavy favorite going into the year’s first major championship, Johnson’s stunning withdrawal put on hold his march to becoming the most dominant player in golf.
Johnson had won three straight outings earlier in the year to capture the No. 1 ranking in the world, but hasn’t been as sharp since returning from his back injury. He tied for second at Wells Fargo, was tied for 12th at the Players and tied for 13th at the Bryon Nelson. But he missed the cut at the Memorial and is still searching for his pre-Masters form.
“Leading into the Masters I was playing the best golf I’ve ever played,” he said. “And it has taken me a while to get back to where I was then. I’ve still got some work to do to get back to when I was playing that good.”
The U.S. Open hasn’t had a repeat winner since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989. But if not for a three-putt for bogey on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay, which allowed Jordan Spieth to win in 2015, Johnson could be going for a three-peat. No doubt, the other 155 golfers in the field will be watching Johnson on Thursday to see how he starts. With the course softened by rain, it could be ripe for scoring.
Johnson was the latest player trying to be the king of golf since the downfall of Tiger Woods. Rory McIlroy was it for a time, then Spieth, then Jason Day and now Johnson. He doesn’t seem to feel the pressure of being No. 1 that Day often talked about. To Johnson, it’s validation.
“It gives me ownership in the fact that what I’m doing is working,” he said. “It drives me to work hard on the things that I’m doing.”
Phil Mickelson likely will miss the tournament attending his daughter’s graduation. There were concerns Johnson might be a no-show if his son wasn’t born.
“Everything worked out and I’m here playing,” Johnson said.
Asked if his presence should intimidate the rest of the field, Johnson said: “I hope so. Shouldn’t it?”
It probably should.