SOUTHHAMPTON, N.Y. -- There was a time, not even that long ago, when most of us saw Dustin Johnson in very simple terms. He was -- to put it bluntly -- the most talented oaf in golf. Maybe even the most talented oaf in the history of golf.
Sure, he could overpower a golf course. Watching him hit driver was like watching Thor swing his hammer. But Johnson could also melt down in spectacular fashion. He would repeatedly get in position to win a major, then light that chance on fire with a brain-dead decision. Everyone was in awe of what he could do, but we didn't revere him.
We saved our reverence for players like Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, men who talked about their golf swings, or their course management, like it was an algebra theorem. Johnson's golfing brain, we joked, was the equivalent of doing multiplication tables with your fingers.
I'm now convinced -- midway through the U.S. Open, where he's the only one of three players under par in one of the most brutal setups in years -- we got it totally wrong.
Johnson isn't golf's greatest simpleton. He's actually a genius. He's one of the most intuitive people the sport has ever seen.
"I think you guys have done a great job in the past, in the early days, of painting him out to be dumb and stupid," said Claude Harmon III, Johnson's swing coach, after he posted a second-round 67 on Friday. "He's not dumb. He's about as far from dumb as you can get. The way that everyone out here is trying to think mentally, he does it without trying. It just doesn't bother him."
"He's not dumb. He's about as far from dumb as you can get. The way that everyone out here is trying to think mentally, he does it without trying. It just doesn't bother him." Claude Harmon III, Dustin Johnson's coach
Harmon is right, and it finally clicked for me this week: Watching Johnson pick apart Oakmont at the U.S. Open two years ago, and now watching him do the same to Shinnecock Hills, reminds me of watching Vladimir Guerrero hit fastballs in his prime.
"It's not an arrogance thing," Harmon said. "It's not a thing where he's trying to be above everybody. He just has supreme confidence in his own abilities."
Shinnecock's brutal, but fair, setup has made a lot of really good players look silly this week, particularly those who bomb the ball as far as they can off the tee and typically don't worry if it goes off line. Most weeks on Tour, you can dig the ball out of the rough and still hit it on the green. Not here. Even though he's known as a bomber, that isn't Johnson. He's strategic with everything he does.
"Everyone talks about far he hits it, but ... he drives the s--- out of it," Harmon said. "He drives it really good."
According to Harmon, Johnson had never seen Shinnecock until he arrived on site this week.
"He always says, 'If I can't figure out a golf course in three days, I need to find a new job,'" Harmon said.
It doesn't matter that Johnson can't explain his gift, or isn't interested in letting me climb inside his head. I don't need him to be Spieth, who can explain his back-nine strategy on a windy day like it's sudoku. I just want to watch him mash the ball into the DFZ (the divot free zone) on every par 4 or par 5, yet somehow always end up on the correct side of the fairway where he can still attack pins.
I want to watch him roll in birdie putts that are struck with the perfect amount of pace (as he did on the seventh hole on Friday), then see him turn to the crowd and offer a fist pump that feels more like a period than an exclamation point. He's on the verge of running away with this championship, and it's clear why: He's the best player in the world -- by far. He expects to do this stuff.
"I knew, obviously, about halfway there it was on a really good line if it would just get to the hole," Johnson said of his birdie on one of Shinnecock's hardest holes. "I guess it dropped right in the front door."
For so many of us who play golf, the game can feel, at times, like a baffling mystery. We read books and magazine articles about swing theory, even when they contradict one another. We spend hours watching YouTube videos of teaching pros who promise us the secret to longer, straighter drives, if only we'll fork over our credit card. There are message boards where you can spend hours, if not half your life, arguing about whether or not Hogan had a secret swing tip he told only a few people before he died.
Dustin Johnson is the antidote to all that mental clutter. I like to watch or attend his news conferences and think of his answers like little Zen koans that are the real secret to golf.
Do you ever get angry on the golf course when you hit a bad shot, a reporter asked him after his round finished up.
"I don't get too angry," Johnson said. "I hit bad shots all the time. Why am I going to get upset about a bad shot I hit. I do it every time I play. So you've got to go find it and hit it again."
Have you ever thrown a club in anger?
"I don't throw clubs," Johnson said. "It's not the club's fault. I wish it was, but it's not."
Do you like being in the lead?
"Yeah, I like being in the lead, for sure," Johnson said. "It's less shots you have to make up."
It's likely that Johnson, if he had a little more patience or focus in big moments, would have won more majors in his career. He was in position to win a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010, a PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010, an Open Championship at Royal St. George in 2011 and a U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in 2015. He didn't win any of them.
Instead of grumbling about what he is not, however, about how many more majors he might have won, I'm ready to appreciate what he is. He's the most physically gifted golfer we've ever seen. (When you see him stand next to Tiger Woods, you realize just how much he towers over the 14-time major winner.) He also doesn't treat tournaments like it's the end of the world when they don't go his way.
At Oakmont, when the USGA was bumbling its way through Sunday afternoon trying to decide whether or not to penalize Johnson for his ball moving on the green after he'd addressed it with his putter, he shrugged off the circus and won the tournament. This week, players have been grousing about the weather, the pins, the traffic and the greens. Johnson just keeps shrugging his giant shoulders, then shaping his shots into the right spots
"The harder it is, the [more] he thinks, 'Good,'" Harmon said. "'Make it tough. Let the wind blow and make everybody feel the pressure.' ... Guys look at him do things and say, 'I just can't do that.'"
He is equal parts artist, brute and savant. There is nothing oafish about it.