Joy of Golf: Johnson's athletic ability could change golf

Joy Chakravarty 07:13 07/07/2016
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Physical specimen: Dustin Johson.

Several years ago, in one of the many enlightening chats I have had with Gary Player, he spoke about his pet peeve in golf – the distance generated by the modern-day golf ball.

While making his impassioned plea to the world’s governing bodies to rein in the golf ball, Player mentioned something very interesting. He said: “The golfers are only going to get bigger and stronger. The other day, I saw this Long Driving Championship, and there were these well-built players hitting the ball miles.

“Imagine a basketball player deciding to take up golf. He is going to be six-and-a-half feet tall, well built, athletic. How long will he hit it? It will be a nightmare. Most golf course designs will be obsolete because of them.”

Player really could have been talking about Dustin Johnson. The American has won on the PGA Tour every season since making his debut in 2008 (except for 2014 when he took that much talked about six-month leave of absence). And yet, he is only recently starting to live up to his potential.

His two wins in last two starts – the US Open at Oakmont and the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational – could really be the start of something special.

Johnson is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 87 kilos. But he is not just brute strength.

In a 2011 Sports Illustrated interview his trainer Randy Myers revealed that Johnson’s standing long jump would put him in the 93rd percentile among NBA players, and his three-cone drill (used to measure speed and agility) was in the 80th percentile among NFL skill-position players. Myers concluded: “I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and he’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen.”

Most experts agree that Johnson would have made a career in whichever sport he chose, simply because of his immense physical abilities. Johnson refuses to talk about his 2014 absence from the game, but whatever he did, seems to be working for him.

He had a reputation for being a party animal before that (a video of him caught by police while DUI went viral), but has looked like a change man following the birth of his first child with Paulina Gretzky in January 2015.

Going back to Player’s fear, the one stat that jumped out of his stupendous effort at Akron was the average driving distance – 342 yards! That really is bad news for any golf course. Most course designers would put their hazards around the 270 to 300-yard area on the fairway.

But given Johnson’s exceptional length of the tee, he has taken almost everything out of play. So, should we be wary of Johnson and the effect he can have on professional golf? Perhaps. But at the same time, we have two amazing examples in Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko which reinforces the belief that there is so much more to golf than brute strength.

Spieth is constantly 40-50 yards shorter than guys like Johnson and Rory McIlroy, and yet, he has won two majors in the past two years and was the world No. 1. On the LPGA Tour, Ko ranks 117th in driving distance at 248.4 yards, way behind the phenomenally talented and athletic Alexi Thompson (driving distance leader at 284.2 yards). And yet, Ko is the women’s world No. 1.

Piercy’s problem

Golf course designers are the not the only ones who must be complaining about Dustin Johnson. The man who has really suffered from his recent exploits is Scott Piercy.

The 37-year-old American, a three-time champion on the PGA Tour, is clearly playing the best golf of his life. He was runner-up to Johnson at Oakmont in the US Open by three shots, and then was left the bridesmaid once again in Akron as he finished one shot behind the same man.

Piercy has now made $1.76 million in his last two starts, improving to 17th in the PGA Tour Money List and 22nd in the FedEx Cup points list. More importantly, in these two weeks, he has jumped from 66th in the world ranking to No. 25.

Obviously, not many fans remember the second-hottest player on the Tour, but Piercy can take heart from the oldest adage in sport – if you keep knocking on the door, it is bound to open one day.

Stat of the week

$706 million – the total sales of Nike Golf for the year ending May 31. That represents a drop of nearly six per cent in sales despite the fact that the golf market grew overall, and in America, Nike Golf’s biggest market, the number of rounds played have increased by 5.5 per cent (according to National Golf Foundation).

A part of the problem for Nike is the growing influence of Under Armour and Cobra-Puma Golf, and the recent success of TaylorMade’s M1 and M2 clubs.

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