CHASKA, Minn.: Dustin Johnson made an exception to his rule of never watching golf on television, only because it was the Ryder Cup.
“That was the only thing I missed,” Johnson said.
The best player this week at Hazeltine, he was nowhere to be found two years ago at Gleneagles.
Amid a published report that Johnson twice tested positive for drugs, he took a six-month break from golf to seek help for what he described as “personal challenges.” That caused him to miss the PGA Championship, the entire FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup.
That now seems like a long time ago.
Johnson is No. 2 in the world, with a chance to reach the top by the end of the year. He is the U.S. Open champion, and perhaps the most feared player in golf because of his combination of power off the tee and precision with his wedges.
He has gone from a low point in his career to being a dominant player that his power and talent suggested he should be.
“I’ve had a lot of [stuff] happen to me,” Johnson said in an interview last summer. “But I came out better on the other side.”
Now he takes his place as the leader of an American team desperate to win the Ryder Cup.
Phil Mickelson has the most experience, playing in his 11th consecutive Ryder Cup and qualifying for every one of those teams. Davis Love III is the U.S. captain for the second time, popular with the players. Tiger Woods surely will bring a presence to the team room and on the golf course as an assistant captain.
Johnson, however, is the thoroughbred.
That puts him in the best position to set the tone for these matches for his U.S. team. Because it’s not about speeches in the team room. It’s not about pumping fists or any other public displays of excitement. It’s about points.
“The best way to be a leader is to win your match,” Johnny Miller said over the weekend.
That’s one area where the Americans have been lacking during their most recent losing streak to Europe. The top qualifiers for the U.S. team in the past three Ryder Cups have combined to win a total of one match.
Bubba Watson went 0-3 at Gleneagles. Woods was 0-3-1 at Medinah in 2012, not contributing a point until he halved with Francesco Molinari in singles. Mickelson was the top qualifier in 2010. He went 1-3 at Celtic Manor, not winning a match until he beat Peter Hanson in singles.
Johnson’s last meaningful round of golf going into Friday was forgettable.
He was tied for the 54-hole lead with Kevin Chappell at the Tour Championship when he missed a couple of tee shots on the front nine that led to bogey, fell a few shots behind and never could get caught up. The end was a three-putt from 4 feet above the hole for double bogey, and he closed with a 73.
No matter. He still is a lock to win PGA Tour player of the year. Johnson’s three victories were a major (U.S. Open), World Golf Championship (Bridgestone Invitational) and FedEx Cup playoff event (BMW Championship). He had 14 finishes in the top 10, a rate of 67 percent. He won the PGA Tour money title at just over $9.3 million. He won the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average.
He didn’t have many bad weeks.
How will he respond as the top player for the American team? Johnson is not one to let anything clutter his thinking, assuming there are many thoughts going through his head at all. He sees the shot and hits it. He makes the game simple.
“What he brings to the table is his game,” Mickelson said. “He just needs to keep playing the way he’s playing. Shoot low numbers, and he’s going to get us a lot of points.”
It didn’t work out that way at Gleneagles when Johnson made his Ryder Cup debut with Mickelson at his side. They lost two matches, both ending on the 16th green. Johnson went 3-0 at Medinah, playing twice with Matt Kuchar. He also formed a strong pairing with Jordan Spieth at the Presidents Cup last year in South Korea, a combination of the best driver and the best putter.
“He thinks simply, which helps in his golf game,” Spieth said. “He just has a lot of confidence in what he’s doing. Bad stuff doesn’t seem to bother him. You couldn’t even get under his skin. D.J. will laugh it off.”
Johnson has never been this confident. He has never looked this relaxed.
Then again, the Ryder Cup has a strange way of bringing out the worst in the Americans.