LIV and the PGA Tour went to war. Dustin Johnson won
LOS ANGELES — It seemed for a while that nothing could stop the grin spread wide across Dustin Johnson’s face at this week’s U.S. Open.
Until, of course, he found himself on the third tee box at Los Angeles Country Club.
In Johnson’s defense, his second hole had been, charitably, a disaster. On that hole, a tame par-4, DJ had made a quadruple-bogey eight, the highest single-hole score of any player in the entire tournament. And as it turned out, even that description was an undersell.
“Caught the corner of the bunker, and then chunked my bunker shot, and then chunked the next one, skulled the next one,” Johnson said later, reliving the snowman with the same grim humor a 20-handicap relives shooting 120. “Everything that you could do wrong, I did wrong.”
Johnson was no longer smiling as he walked from the second green to the third tee box. He was fuming.
He’d walked into LACC on a monthlong high following a win at LIV Tulsa. He’d played well in the weeks leading up to the tournament. His swing had felt comfortable; his body confident. And then he’d dropped a steaming eight onto an otherwise pristine scorecard, wiping away most of the hard work he’d done in an impressive Thursday 64.
Now, on the third tee, it threatened to all come apart. Another unlucky drive and Johnson’s U.S. Open could unravel altogether. He knew, he said, that he needed to find the fairway.
So he gripped his driver and pulled the trigger.
IN A LOT OF WAYS, Dustin Johnson is already this week’s winner in golf. And last week’s winner. And next week’s winner. And the winner for a whole ‘lotta weeks after that.
And why is DJ the winner? Because he stepped into the middle of the PGA Tour/LIV Golf war, and somehow, he beat both of them.
As the golf world reacts to the complicated news of a merger that will eventually put the PGA Tour and LIV Golf under the same leadership, Johnson’s name has hidden safely away from the limelight. But as he grins and giggles his way around LACC at this U.S. Open, it’s clear to almost everyone around him that his dream has become a reality: he can have his cake — LIV money — and eat it too, eventually from the familiar fairways of the PGA Tour.
The victory does count as something of a stunner. The warring sides had far more money than him, far more resources than him, and generally speaking, far more interest in the battle.
Johnson, on the other hand, entered the battle a 38-year-old with two children, a wife, and a general affinity for being rich. When LIV’s offer came in, his decision didn’t focus much on prickly geopolitics or the weight of his legacy — it focused primarily on a few commas and a bunch of zeroes.
“We talked about this yesterday,” Johnson said, tongue planted firmly in cheek, at LIV’s season-ending event in Jeddah. “I really regret my decision to come here. It’s just so terrible. I’m sitting there last night thinking about it, it was really bothering me a lot. Yeah, just can’t get over it.”
When the PGA Tour/LIV battle entered the mainstream, it seemed there would be at least a few who came out on top of the whole engagement, be it by money or reputation or glory or some combination of the three. It did not seem, however, that Johnson would be one of them.
Until about a week ago, his lifetime ban from the PGA Tour felt pretty ironclad, and LIV’s general ineptitude felt … pretty telling. Johnson’s most likely path into the future seemed to be riding LIV out until the league closed its doors or he decided to close his. He would enjoy his boatloads of new money from LIV, but not the reverential retirement a player of his quality and achievement generally enjoys on the PGA Tour. That was okay, though. He’d see his old sparring partners on the Tour when he saw them — be it around the fairways at a major championship or in the neighborhood down in Jupiter, Fla.
But Johnson always had an ace up his sleeve: his focus with LIV was so singular and his desires so wholly self-driven, he’d managed to leave for the rivals without upsetting his old pals on Tour. Faced with chance after chance to pick a side by bashing his old league, Johnson stayed fiercely neutral. His old friends noticed.
“It’s a very nuanced situation and there’s different dynamics,” Rory McIlroy said of his old pal Dustin at the Masters. “You know, it’s okay to get on with Brooks and DJ and maybe not get on with some other guys that went to LIV, right? It’s interpersonal relationships, that’s just how it goes.”
In May, at LIV Singapore, an Australian news outlet erroneously quoted him as saying he “didn’t give a damn” what PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan thought of him. By morning, his agent, David Winkle, sent a statement to media correcting the record — and offering an eerie peek into his future.
“Dustin remains grateful for his time on the PGA Tour and has the utmost respect for Commissioner Monahan,” Winkle said.
When news of the merger that would reunify LIV and the PGA Tour came last week, Johnson stayed silent, partially because LIV didn’t have an event, but mostly because the details said it all. Under the proposed agreement, LIV players would be extended an avenue to return to the PGA Tour. Monahan, Johnson’s old friend and commissioner, would be his boss yet again. Eventually, DJ would be welcomed back with open arms.
The simpler truth was even more obvious: he’d taken on the house and won, pocketing some $125 million via signing bonus and another $45 million in on-course earnings with LIV. In the end, he’d made that money and found a path back to the creature comforts he’d called home for the better part of two decades.
He looked light as air at LACC, flowing through the practice range and out to the golf course. He laughed with old friends on the range and chuckled with family near the clubhouse. As he greeted his wife, Paulina, after a six-under opening round, his Airpod-white teeth poked out from underneath a mile-wide grin.
“Not bad,” he’d said. “Yeah, not bad.”
THE GOOD VIBES returned quickly at the U.S. Open.
Early in the week, Johnson found himself surprised by the energy around the tournament. Could it be the merger news had actually helped pro golfers reconnect?
“I felt like I’ve always had a good relationship with the guys,” Johnson said. “Through it all and obviously now — sure, I could see that point of view, absolutely.”
On the course, it took only 15 minutes for Johnson’s second round at LACC to rebound in kind.
After the quad on No. 2, he pumped his drive down the center of the fairway on No. 3. Ten minutes later, he rolled in a 15-footer for birdie.
He walked off the course with an adventurous even-par finish. Somehow, he was still six under for the tournament, same as he’d started the day, entering the weekend only a handful of strokes off the leaders.
“Sometimes it is hard to keep it from unraveling,” he said. “Today, it wasn’t.”
As he stepped away from the lectern, he grinned again.
This time, the smile said it all.