Johnson’s tears for a green jacket and major validation

AUGUSTA, Ga. — For someone with a reputation of lacking a pulse and fist pumps, the raw emotion from Masters champion Dustin Johnson was as startling as a virtually vacant Augusta National.

Why was he so choked up he couldn’t speak?

Why was the smile so much brighter Sunday at the Masters than when he won his first major four years ago at Oakmont, as esteemed a U.S. Open course as there is?

Part of it was location, sure.

Johnson grew up about an hour away in South Carolina, and the Masters is the one major every Southern kid dreams about winning.

“Since I played my first Masters, it’s been the tournament I wanted to win the most,” he said after setting the scoring record at 20-under 268 in his five-shot victory.

Phil Mickelson and his sharp needle once poked Johnson a few years ago at the Masters by asking if he had dinner plans for Tuesday night, and then waiting for Johnson to figure it out. He does now. Johnson will be hosting the Masters Club dinner for champions in April. He has an invitation for life to play in the Masters.

“Until they tell me not to come back,” he said.

As much as location, however, this also was validation.

The question there wasn’t time to ask Sunday night was whether this victory was enough to atone for all those other majors that went wrong. The suspicion is he would have agreed.

Two elements of validation were in play.

Johnson already had become owner of a label not talked about enough: The best player to have only one major. That’s a list that would include Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins, Fred Couples and Davis Love III. Going into the Masters, the 36-year-old Johnson had them all beat because of 23 wins on a PGA Tour that has never been deeper, and the number of chances he had in other majors. He has the career Grand Slam of silver medals.

Now he has two majors, still not as many as his talent would suggest, but a start. And he wants more.

“I want to get to No. 3 first,” Johnson said. “I dream of winning a lot of majors. Just hasn’t quite happened yet. Hopefully, this one will help give me a little spring.”

The other part of validation was his reputation as a closer.

No one wants to be perceived as the player who can’t hold a lead. Johnson could sense that was the reputation he was developing. He said as much in his news conference when he began with, “I’m sure a lot of you all think” before he switched gears to say “there were doubts in my mind, just because I had been there.”

It was a surprising concession from Johnson, who is not easily bothered. For so many years, one of his greatest assets was a short memory.

The day after he shot 82 in the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when staked to a three-shot lead, he could be found in his boat off the Florida coast without giving it a second thought.

One of the most crushing losses was the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. He went from a 12-foot eagle putt for the win to a three-putt par to finish one shot behind. Johnson headed to Idaho that night. The next morning Wayne Gretzky, his de facto father-in-law, led a group out to play golf.

On the second hole, Gretzky said a cart was zipping down the fairway toward them. It was Johnson, asking why they went out to play without him.

“If I had lost Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, the last place I would be the next morning is on the ice,” Gretzky said.

Amazing resiliency.

But the mishaps were mounting. There was the two-shot penalty for grounding his club in sandy soil that was deemed a bunker at Whistling Straits, costing him a playoff spot at the 2010 PGA Championship. There was his third-round 77 at Shinnecock Hills in the 2018 U.S. Open. He might never know why his 5-iron flew the 16th green at Bethpage Black in the PGA Championship last year when he was on the cusp of a great comeback.

And it had to sting this year when he had a one-shot lead going into the final round of the PGA Championship at Harding Park. Brooks Koepka was two shots back and noted his four majors. “He’s only won one,” he added.

That explains why one member of his team said his victory at East Lake to win the FedEx Cup was “big for credibility.”

Far greater satisfaction came from the stage of too many close calls. Five holes into the final round, Johnson’s four-shot lead was down to one. And then he delivered the key shot, an 8-iron down the slope to a pin tucked on the corner shelf. He made the 6-foot birdie putt and was on his way.

And now he can’t wait for the next one, only five months away.

It will be the shortest time any Masters champion gets to keep the green jacket with him. Johnson knows one will always be waiting for him in the locker room at Augusta.

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