Before the 2020 Masters, there was a bothersome truth about Dustin Johnson’s career and success that permeated everything he did. That bothersome truth was that his major championship total — the pre-eminent measuring stick by which the modern player is judged — was not commensurate with his level of talent.
There are many (infamous) reasons for that, but it always felt like trying to perform statistical gymnastics when explaining it to someone, No, really, D.J. is one of the best players in the history of the sport even though he has the same number of major championship wins as Ben Curtis and Jimmy Walker.
That’s no longer true after he dusted the 2020 Masters field by five and raised his career resume to 24 PGA Tour wins and two majors, which came at Oakmont and Augusta National. One tournament changes a lot. But it also begs a lot of questions about the future. Johnson turned 36 in June and is at the end of a five-year run of the best and most consistent golf of his career. I’m curious about whether that’s all it is — the end of a five-year run — or if it’s the middle of a 10-year run. If so, then D.J. could legitimately go down as one of the 10-15 best golfers of all time.
When you account for how much deeper the modern game is than when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer played, you have to consider a bit of a sliding scale in career achievements. Gone are the days of the 50-win player (Phil Mickelson was likely the last of that type of career), and we have to adjust both expectations and analysis going forward.
So I think the question for me is whether Johnson can hit two benchmarks moving forward. These are not the end-all, be-all, but Mickelson — 44 wins and five majors — is actually a nice barometer for what one of the best of all time looks like. By most measures, Lefty is either on the cusp of being a top 10 player ever or just inside of it. If D.J. can somehow finish off his career like he’s played the last five years, I think he’ll be right there around Phil as well.
Here are the benchmarks: three more major wins and 11 more total PGA Tour wins. That would give him 35 PGA Tour wins and five majors for his career. Slightly short of Phil, but D.J. also plays less than Lefty did (and will probably have an overall shorter career in terms of total tournaments). Mickelson is almost at 700 career events, while D.J. just hit 300 total events. Johnson trails him in age, but he won’t be playing 400 events in the next 14 years. In the last five years, Mickelson has played more than Johnson in four of them (and this is Mickelson at age 50!).
D.J. has won three tournaments a year for the last five years. A testament to improved play in every category of his game, but also an institutional knowledge that only comes with age and experience. Clearly this is a clip he can maintain, the only question is how long can he maintain it. Is it unreasonable to think it could extend another three or so years and then start a steady decline? I don’t think so. That would get him close to 35 wins. Is it unreasonable to think that he could repeat his last five years in the next five? That would give him 39 total PGA Tour wins.
Then there are the major championships. His five-year run of finishes is preposterous. Dating back to 2015, he has 13 top-10s in 22 events, including two wins, four runners up and a third and fourth for good measure.
Major championships are not just handed out like candy so I hate to forecast what will or won’t happen at future majors, but it’s also difficult to envision him not winning at least one more if he keeps putting himself into this kind of contention at the four biggest events. He could win more (or less), too. Is it crazy to think D.J. could already be at four or five right now? It’s not, and his legacy will obviously hinge on whether he can rip off a few more before it’s all over.
The 40-win, five-major club is outrageously difficult to get to, and I don’t think D.J. will get there. However, this is sort of the trajectory he’s shooting for, and he does have an outside shot at joining this crew of legends over the rest of his career.
The question for the modern player is whether you can touch Phil’s career. Tiger’s career is untouchable. It is impossible in the modern era because golf is deeper now than it was before, and Tiger is probably the best player of all time. But it’s not infeasible for the Justin Thomases and Dustin Johnsons of the world to think they could match Mickelson. And if they do, they will have to be considered, at least statistically and historically, among the best golfers in the history of the game.