ATLANTA – There is no mistaking Dustin Johnson as he ambles around the golf course, nor any indication how he’s playing on a given day.
His super-chill demeanor is usually talked about when he’s in the thick of the race, bombing drives and draining birdies without so much as fist pump.
Here, at the Tour Championship, amid Johnson’s longest stretch of futility since his first PGA Tour win in 2008, it’s no different. Johnson’s irons are not sharp. Course management is an issue with very few good misses and plenty of short-sided chips. The putts look good but do not fall.
He spends a majority of Saturday’s third round at East Lake chatting up playing partner Brandt Snedeker in one of the more relaxed professional twosomes you’ll ever see. Johnson’s futile putting has clearly become a running joke midway through the round when he finally gets one to go from 10-feet for his lone birdie of the day at the par-4 13th.
Snedeker hunches over facing Johnson and starts an exaggerated slow clap. Johnson finally locks eyes with Snedeker, sees what he’s doing and starts laughing. He adds to the moment when he turns toward the greenside hospitality tent and gives a big, sweeping thumbs-up.
This is Johnson at his most relatable, and the fans eat it up.
This is the last we’ll see of Johnson for a while, as he plans to take a lengthy break after finishing tied with Lucas Glover on the bottom of the leaderboard at 10 over.
There’s just one question.
Where has this guy been during the second half of the season?
“I feel good, I’m swinging good,” Johnson says while removing his golf shoes in the locker room following a third-round 75. “Mentally I think I’m just worn out.”
It’s important to point out that most guys on Tour would kill for the season Johnson has had. He won for the 20th time with a dominant victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Finished runner-up at the Masters and the PGA Championship, where he nearly pulled off an all-time comeback to catch Brooks Koepka at Bethpage.
It’s the post-PGA Championship stretch that’s been puzzling to watch.
He’s now gone eight consecutive starts without a top-15 finish. That’s the longest such stretch for Johnson since his first pro victory at the 2008 Turning Stone Resort Championship. It shows just how ridiculously consistent Johnson has been over the years, but also how un-DJ-like he’s been playing over the past several months.
It’s hard to fathom because he’s still so good off the tee, where there isn’t much by way of conversation between he and caddie/brother Austin Johnson. Pull driver and bang it.
And the recent slump hasn’t affected Johnson’s stellar pace of play. He is a case study in ready golf at a time when others like Bryson DeChambeau are making headlines for their deliberate style.
He gets the number and chooses a club while Snedeker is going through his pre-shot routine. On the par-4 eighth hole, his ball is in the air exactly 13 seconds after Snedeker hit his. The longest he took all day was on the par-4 10th hole, where a clueless volunteer was walking around the back of the green. It takes a while for Johnson to get his attention and motion to stop. Even with the distraction, he hits 27 seconds after Snedeker. It makes for a very pleasant viewing experience.
His approaches run hot and cold all afternoon, but the mistakes are costly. He puts one in the water on the par-3 15th hole and cards a double bogey.
“Every time I miss it’s in the wrong spot. And I’m not making any putts,” Johnson emphasizes. “I feel like I’m hitting good putts. Just nothing’s going in the hole. I need a break, pretty much. That’s all it is.”
When Johnson and Snedeker arrive at the 18th, incoming storms are sure to cause a delay any minute. The biggest concern now is finishing the hole so he and Snedeker don’t have to sit around the clubhouse for more than an hour just to play a few shots.
Snedeker has the honors on 18 but Johnson jogs ahead while Snedeker putts out on 17 and asks for the go-ahead to skip protocol and tee off first. Snedeker confirms and Johnson rips one 341 yards down the right side of the fairway.
This is speed golf at its finest and they’re putting on a show for the fans at 18, who are suddenly invested in the cause.
Snedeker hits from the fairway and Johnson follows eight seconds later.
Both players are now jogging toward the green, Johnson to a nearby bunker from which he has to hit before the horn blows. If his ball is on the green, he’ll be allowed to finish out. He takes a quick whack less than a minute before the horn blows at 4:17 p.m. ET.
Johnson and Snedeker finish up and congratulate each other on a job well done.
It was a fascinating round of golf, played in three hours, 20 minutes, showcasing all of Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses in one tidy loop. He looks more relaxed than ever, fist-bumping anyone who leans over the ropes and tossing golf balls to little kids.
He is slumping and clearly ready to shut it down, but none of this seems to bother him in the least. After another year of close calls in the majors and a 12th consecutive season with at least one win, it’s time for a break.
The game will be here when he gets back. He could fret over the cold putting or worry about some loose iron shots, but he doesn’t. That’s not his style and it’s as refreshing as his pace of play. On this day, there’s just one thing on Johnson’s mind.
“I got two months (off),” Johnson said. “I’m definitely excited about that.”