Chaska, Minn. — Dustin Johnson made an exception to his rule of never watching golf on television, only because it was the Ryder Cup.
“That was the only thing I missed,” Johnson said.
The best player this week at Hazeltine National, he was nowhere to be found two years ago at Gleneagles.
Amid a published report Johnson tested positive for drugs — twice — he took a six-month break from golf to seek help for what he described as “personal challenges.” That forced him to miss the PGA Championship, the entire FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup.
That now seems like a long time ago.
Johnson is No. 2 in the world, with a chance to reach the top by the end of the year. He is the U.S. Open champion, and perhaps the most feared player in golf because of his combination of power off the tee and precision with his wedges.
He has gone from a low point in his career to being a dominant player that his power and talent suggested he should be.
“I’ve had a lot of (stuff) happen to me,” Johnson said in an interview last summer. “But I come out better on the other side.”
Now he takes his place as the leader of an American team desperate to win the Ryder Cup.
Phil Mickelson has the most experience, playing in his 11th consecutive Ryder Cup and qualifying for every one of those teams. Davis Love III is captain of the United States for the second time, popular with the players. Tiger Woods surely will bring a presence to the team room and on the golf course as an assistant captain.
Johnson, however, is the thoroughbred.
That puts him in the best position to set the tone for these matches for his U.S. team. Because it’s not about speeches in the team room.
It’s not about pumping fists or any other public displays of excitement.
It’s about points.
“The best way to be a leader is to win your match,” Johnny Miller said last weekend.
That’s one area where the Americans have been lacking during their most recent losing streak to Europe. The top qualifiers for the U.S. team in the last three Ryder Cups have combined to win a total of one match.
Bubba Watson went 0-3 at Gleneagles. Woods was 0-3-1 at Medinah in 2012, not contributing a point until he halved with Francesco Molinari in singles. Mickelson was the top qualifier in 2010. He went 1-3 at Celtic Manor, not winning a match until he beat Peter Hanson in singles.
Johnson’s last meaningful round of golf going into Friday was forgettable.
He was tied for the 54-hole lead with Kevin Chappell at the Tour Championship when he missed a couple tee shots on the front nine that led to bogey, fell a few shots behind and never could get caught up. The end was a three-putt from 4 feet above the hole for double bogey, and he closed with a 73.
No matter. He still is a lock to win PGA Tour player of the year. Johnson’s three victories were a major (U.S. Open), World Golf Championship (Bridgestone Invitational) and FedEx Cup playoff event (BMW Championship). He had 14 finishes in the top 10. He won the PGA Tour money title at just over $9.3 million. He won the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average.
“What he brings to the table is his game,” Mickelson said. “He just needs to keep playing the way he’s playing. Shoot low numbers and he’s going to get points.”
Course: Hazeltine National (7,628 yards, par 72), Chaska, Minn.
TV: Golf Channel — 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday. NBC — 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday
Defending champion: Europe
Course: Reignwood Pine Valley Golf Club (6,596 yards, par 73), Beijing
Purse: $2.1 million ($315,000 winner)
TV: Golf Channel — 1-4 a.m. Thursday, 2-4 a.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday, 2-6 p.m. Sunday
Defending champion: Mirim Lee