Dustin Johnson’s improvements with his wedges give the long-hitter a big advantage

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Dustin Johnson’s improvements with his wedges give the long-hitter a big advantage

PGA Tour

Dustin Johnson’s improvements with his wedges give the long-hitter a big advantage

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Feb. 27, 2017 digital issue of Golfweek. Click here to subscribe.)

When Dustin Johnson woke up in Los Angeles on Feb. 20, he was not just the winner of the Genesis Open, his name also was on the top of Official World Golf Ranking for the first time. At age 32 he reached the top of his profession, displacing Australia’s Jason Day, who held the position for 47 weeks.

It does not take a deep study to understand the strength of Johnson’s game. Very few players have created the speed and power he delivers off the tee. But Johnson has always been long off the tee.

What’s new, and what helped him win the U.S. Open last season and become the No. 1 player last week, is that last season he got serious about improving his wedge game.

Golfweek reported last season that on the eve of the PGA Tour’s 2016 Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club, Johnson began work on his wedge game using a TrackMan. After the rainy session was done, he told his agent to buy him one of the $20,000-plus, radar-based launch monitors. Like many other Tour players, Johnson takes the device on the road. Along with the help of his coach, Butch Harmon, Johnson has improved his ability to hit wedge shots closer to the hole.

As the chart above shows, over the past five seasons Johnson has improved in most of the key stats that relate to approach shots from distances associated with wedges. Every player wants to be good in these areas, but long-hitters like Johnson put themselves in these ranges more often than normal on par 4s and even some par 5s, so becoming more proficient from 150 yards and in is of particular importance to him.

The only line that has not moved in a positive direction for Johnson is his proximity to the hole on shots hit from between 125 and 150 yards. Depending on the conditions and the hole location, shots in that Dustin Johnson Dustin Johnson’s improvements with his wedges give the long-hitter a big advantage range may present a problem because he carries a pitching wedge, a 52-degree gap wedge and a 60-degree lob wedge. It’s a little surprising, given his length, that Johnson has not pulled one of his long irons and added a fourth wedge in the 56-degree range so he can have more full-swing options and versatility.

Admittedly, this is nitpicking of the highest order about the equipment choices of the man who just became the top-ranked player in the world, but it is still interesting to consider.

The chart shows that Johnson’s average distance from the hole on approach shots hit from inside 125 yards is between 15 and 20 feet. It would be frightening for his opponents if Johnson made those mid-range putts as often as Jordan Spieth. Well, last season … he did!

In 2016, Johnson played 87 rounds on the PGA Tour and gave himself 112 putts between 15 and 20 feet. Those are almost never second putts; they’re prime birdie chances. He made 30 of them (26.79 percent), which was third-best on the PGA Tour behind Fabian Gomez (27.08 percent) and Jordan Spieth (26.85 percent).

Spieth is regarded as one of the best mid-range putters in the game, and last season Johnson was basically his equal. Because he is known for his length off the tee and famously three-putted away a chance to win the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, Johnson’s putting in this range is underappreciated.

So in addition to being one of golf’s most effective drivers – he ranked second in strokes gained: off-the-tee last season behind Rory McIlroy – Johnson’s improving wedge game is more frequently getting him into the birdie-putt range in which he excels. It’s the equivalent of the Golden State Warriors discovering that Steph Curry is really good at making 3-pointers, then finding ways to feed him more shots behind the arc.

Simply put, it allows Johnson to capitalize on his strengths.

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