DJ and his driver
Dustin Johnson’s rise to No. 1 was fueled by his dominance off the tee – something he showed a decade ago
March 27, 2017
By Jonathan Wall, PGATOUR.COM
Dustin Johnson’s rise to No. 1 was fueled by his dominance off the tee – something he showed a decade ago
Keith Sbarbaro is a good judge of talent. As TaylorMade Golf's Vice President of Tour Operations, it's his job to unearth up-and-coming amateurs that could be worthy additions to the company's Tour staff.
Coming out of Coastal Carolina University, Dustin Johnson wasn't billed as a can't-miss player. But his impressive amateur career — first team All-America his senior year with wins at the Monroe Invitational and Northeast Amateur — was more than enough to make TaylorMade stand up and take notice.
Back in 2007, analytics didn't factor into the decision-making process when it came to signing a player.
"It was more about evaluating the talent and hoping you were right," Sbarbaro said. "The goal is to find guys that will make your staff better, but along the way you always want to hit it big."
When Sbarbaro met Johnson at TaylorMade's performance center in the summer of 2007, he immediately knew something was different — particularly when the rangy 22-year-old made contact with the driver.
"At that point I had been out on TOUR for eight or nine years working with the best players in the world," Sbarbaro said. "I had seen them all. But Dustin was hitting a ball that I really hadn’t seen from too many guys. It was such a heavy hit. Basically it was 185 miles per hour, high launch with low spin. And it was easy for him to do."
Despite the impressive range session, Sbarbaro wasn't completely sold. So he made a phone call to his "barometer" to set up a game and see if Johnson could handle the pressure.
The barometer's name? Phil Mickelson.
Sbarbaro and Mickelson grew up together in San Diego and were teammates/roommates at Arizona State University. Sbarbaro figured if the player in question could hang with one of the best in the world, then perhaps that player was worth inking.
Early the next morning, Mickelson, Johnson and Sbarbaro were teeing it up at The Bridges Golf Club. Four holes into the round, the trio arrived at the par-4 fifth — better known as the hole that would seal the deal for Sbarbaro.
"I still remember the air was thick that morning and the wind was into us, so it wasn't the kind of hole where you'd expect to rip a big drive," he recalled. "Phil and I both hit solid drives out there, and then Dustin steps up and hits this ball that looks like it's twice as high as we hit it, but realistically it was probably 30 feet higher."
The ball hung in the air for an eternity before it crashed into an upslope on reentry and bounded what looked to be 50 yards ahead of Sbarbaro and Mickelson.
"I just started laughing," Sbarbaro said. "I get in the cart with Phil and we're driving up and I tell him, 'Dude, we could stand on that tee all day and we can't hit a ball there.' Up to that point in my life, I'd never played with anyone that I could say that about – [and] that's an actual player on top of it."
Watching Dustin Johnson hit driver is something to behold — his ability to wind his body up like a spring, severely bow his left wrist at the top of the swing and then unload on the ball with surgical precision. In an age where technology has made it possible for nearly every player on TOUR to uncork a 300-yard drive, Johnson still finds himself in the must-watch category when he has driver in hand.
"You know he's going to hit it a mile off the tee, and obviously he's the best player," said Jon Rahm, the young Spanish star who had a first-row seat Sunday afternoon, losing to Johnson in the finals of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. "He's the hottest player we have right now on TOUR, and he's a hard guy to beat."
From a statistical standpoint, the driver gives Johnson an edge that few on TOUR have with a particular club. In 16 ShotLink-scored events during the 2015-16 TOUR season when Johnson made the cut, he ranked inside the top 10 for strokes gained: off-the-tee 12 times, picking up more than one stroke on average over the field (plus 1.117), ranking him second behind only Rory McIlroy.
There's also the incredible 122 mph club head speed — 9.5 mph faster than the TOUR average — and the 181 mph ball speed that, when combined, translate into a 306.7 yard driving distance — nearly 24 yards further than the average of 283.1 yards last season.
In total, more than half of his strokes gained for last season (56 percent) — Johnson also ranked inside the top 8 in every off-the-tee statistical category — came from his performance off the tee.
This season has been a continuation of that driving prowess. He ranks second in strokes gained: tee to green, third in strokes gained: off the tee, and second (behind Rory McIlroy) in average driving distance.
Of course, the most impressive numbers are his current three consecutive wins streak that elevated and cemented his position as the world’s top-ranked player.
While Johnson said after latest win Sunday at Austin Country Club that he still has room to improve with his wedges and mid-irons, he appears quite happy with his play off the tee.
“I feel like I’m driving it really well right now, so I need to keep doing that,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of my game. If I hit the driver well, then I usually am going to play pretty good.”
Sbarbaro knows better than just about anyone inside Johnson's inner circle how good he is with the driver. A strong player in his own right, Sbarbaro has been a sounding board for Johnson since he joined the TOUR, and has caddied for the top-ranked player in the world at various points in his career.
"I've known Keith for a very long time and we're very good friends," Johnson said. "He builds pretty much all of my clubs. He knows if there's something I'm going to like. Generally he's right. I've been working with him for 10 years now and we're on the same page with stuff like, whether it's adding loft or trying a different shaft."
Sbarbaro has seen Johnson grow on the course over the last few years and develop into one of the best drivers of the golf ball on TOUR. Much of Johnson's recent success can be traced back to a decision to alter his shot shape from a draw to a more controlled fade.
For much of Johnson's career, the draw was his stock shape off the tee, but a lack of consistency made him tinker with a fade in 2014 while practicing home at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California, during the offseason.
"I kept getting word that he was basically shooting 62 all the time and breaking course records with the fade," Sbarbaro said. "But when he came back to TOUR in 2015, he felt like he wanted to go back to a draw."
Not fully confident with the fade, it took until the 2016 World Golf Championship-Dell Technologies Match Play for Johnson to commit and stick with it. Johnson drove the ball better than he had all season that week and fully committed to the new shot shape.
"It's more of a control thing," Johnson said of the fade. "Today's drivers spin a lot less so I feel like I'm not losing any distance and my fade is going just as far. It's worked out for me since."
As a member of TaylorMade's Tour staff since he made his professional debut in 2007, Johnson has found the winner's circle with nine of the company's flagship drivers, most recently with the TaylorMade '17 M1 460 that propelled him to his current streak of three consecutive wins.
As driver technology has improved, so has the way Johnson has set up the club. The only constant has been a Fujikura Speeder shaft that's been in the driver going back to college. Initially, Johnson preferred the heavier feel of an 80-gram shaft, but during the 2009 season, Fujikura made a lighter 70-gram version — it was called the "Fujikura 2.0" — for TaylorMade that's been his shaft of choice since.
"He's tried other models periodically over the years but always come back to the 2.0 shaft," Sbarbaro said. "There's some familiarity there that he likes, not to mention it gives him the flight he wants off the tee."
Dustin Johnson's current driver specs
Driver: TaylorMade '17 M1 460
Loft: 10.5 degrees (actual loft 11 degrees)
Shaft: Fujikura Speeder Evolution 2.0 Tour Spec 661X (tipped 1 inch)
Swing weight: D4
Length: 45.75 inches
Lie angle: 59 degrees
Grip: Golf Pride Tour Velvet 58 round (3 total wraps bottom hand and 2 total wraps top hand)
From a looks perspective, Johnson prefers a head that lacks the standard bulge and roll found on most of today's drivers. He also went up in loft, from 9.5 degrees of loft to 10.5 degrees (11 degrees of actual loft), around the same time TaylorMade made the shift to a more forward center of gravity position.
When Johnson made the switch to M1 460 at the Genesis Open, the fractional change in loft and closed club face provided a visual aid when executing his out-to-in club path. The T-Track system in the sole is set with the front track in the end of the toe ("Fade") to keep the face open at impact.
With a plus-three-degree angle of attack — he spins the ball around 2200 RPMs — Johnson is also able to move the back weight in the track closer to the "High" position to achieve the higher flight that he prefers with his fade.
"Nowadays with the new drivers, Dustin can go up in loft to 11 degrees and hit level or barely up on it and still launch it at 12 or 13 degrees with 2200 RPMs," Sbarbaro said. "And that's with a fade. Technology has allowed him to do that."
Another piece of the equation that's allowed him to get the most of the driver is his ability to hold his hands and the club face square through impact longer than most players, who typically throw the club head at the ball, with the wrists and club head rotating quickly through the impact zone.
"He has a huge advantage in just the way he swings the club," Sbarbaro said. "To be able to hit it that far with that square of a face, that's why he's probably the best driver of the golf ball ever. He's the longest, straightest that's ever played out here.
"He's strong enough where he's able to do that and have 180 mph ball speed. Now if stayed back on it and flipped at it like a lot of these guys do, I think he'd be at 195. But he'd have no idea where it was going."
Johnson's success, as it pertains to the driver, has forced TaylorMade's R&D team to push the limits with new technology. As Johnson has gotten more familiar with the technology over the years, he's taken on a larger role in the design and feedback process.
"I think a lot of that comes with time," said Brian Bazzel, TaylorMade’s senior director of product creation for metalwoods. "As we've got to know Dustin more, he's become more vocal in what he likes and doesn't like when it comes to the driver.
"Having someone with his pedigree — and don't forget about guys like Jason Day, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose — can be a benefit because you know he won't use it unless it's markedly better than what's currently in his bag. Ultimately, that pushes us to try different designs and find something that performs better than what he's currently playing."
For Sbarbaro, he uses Johnson and the rest of the players on TaylorMade's Tour staff to verify if the product lives up to the hype. That means putting every driver through the paces during the prototype and testing phases to ensure the numbers match what R&D is promising.
"I'm not a favorite guy for the R&D department, because I have a TrackMan and the best players in the world," Sbarbaro said. "You can't fool me on anything. If you tell me this driver is going to make Dustin Johnson longer, I'm going to know it in 10 minutes. I've got the best test subjects in the world. We on Tour are constantly pushing them to make better products, and we hold them accountable, and they deliver."
Johnson's success with TaylorMade's driver offerings throughout the years has given him the confidence to use the club off the tee with increased regularity. Even on tight courses, it's not uncommon to see him pull driver out of the bag and take an aggressive line over the trees or a potential hazard.
Sbarbaro fully admits Johnson is better off using the club and playing to his strengths than hanging back. But that doesn't mean he hasn't tried to keep him from using it on occasion — for his own good, of course.
Caddying for Johnson at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship a few years back, the duo found themselves on the cut line with three holes to play. With out of bounds lining the right side of the 16th hole on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Sbarbaro suggested an iron off the tee to try and extend the week. Johnson wanted to hit driver.
Sbarbaro eventually won the battle, but only because he walked off the tee with Johnson's driver in the bag.
"I threw 5-iron down on the tee and took off down the fairway," he said. "We ended up making the cut."
While the story is an amusing one, Sbarbaro noted that Johnson's long-term success is ultimately with the longest club in the bag. When he's locked-in off the tee, it makes it easier for him to lean on his improved short game and putting that's turned him into one of the most complete players in the world.
"I know from working with him and being on the bag some that he's not going to win tournaments laying up. He's going to win them going with driver and giving himself short irons to attack as many pins as possible. He's so confident with the club that it allows him to take chances. And more often than not, he pulls it off."