MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina – Six years ago, not long after Dustin Johnson suffered one of the worst breakdowns in golf history at the 2015 US Open in Chambers Bay, he was behind the wheel of his spare car and drove back to his rental home.
Nobody in the car – not his girlfriend Paulina Gretzky; not his brother and caddy, Austin; not Austin’s girlfriend (and now wife), Samantha; not longtime agent David Winkle – hadn’t said anything. They were still in disbelief that Johnson shot a 3-putt from 12 feet on the 72nd hole, only to lose to Jordan Spieth in a shot, which prolonged Johnson’s quest for that elusive first major title.
Suddenly Johnson pulled the Lexus SUV to the side of the road.
“Relieve yourself, guys!” Cried Johnson. “It’s just golf!”
“This was our time to be there for him and lift him up and make him see how life goes on,” said Winkle. “The irony is he’s the one who’s trying to lighten our spirits and uplift us now. It just showed me what kind of man he was and what kind of stand-up guy he is and how he doesn’t golf lets define who he is and that he keeps an eye on things and moves on. “
While Dustin and Paulina packed their bags in the apartment building, Winkle and Paulina’s father, NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, waited in the kitchen.
“Davey, do you want a beer?” Asked Gretzky.
“Wayne, I never wanted a beer,” said Winkle.
The men sat down at the kitchen table and Gretzky confessed something.
“In all my years of playing the game, I have never felt so much heartbreak,” he said.
A day later, Johnson was back on the golf course with Gretzky. He never mentioned what was going on on the 18th green at Chambers Bay.
“We were all so stunned from that moment, but Dustin was already in his training process,” said Winkle. “It’s just his greatest gift, the ability to leave things behind, learn from them, and wash away the negative aspect of memory.”
This ability to parry disappointment has enabled him early in his PGA Tour career to overcome so many near misses at major championships and to deal with self-inflicted setbacks in his personal life that threatened his potential.
Winkle once suggested that his client was “dipped in Teflon at birth”.
“He doesn’t live in the past,” said Winkle. “He lives in the present and the future. He doesn’t spend a second of his time worrying about things he can’t control, and things in the past certainly fall into this category. They can be things that have already happened , do not change . “
Perhaps this imposing, country-strong body that made its way to number 1 in the world, 24 tour wins, two major titles including the 2020 Masters, and a career win of more than $ 71 million has already been hit Heart is broken so many times
“I think every elite player is looking for what Dustin has,” said Allen Terrell, the coaching director of the Dustin Johnson School of Golf in Myrtle Beach. “I don’t think it was easy for him.”
“Get out of your pocket and get a club, swing, just hit the ball.”
Everything that has happened – the multiple heartache states at majors, the wondering if he was smart enough to be an elite, the reported drug problems that once earned him a six-month ban from the PGA Tour – seem distant memories now . When the player, known as a DJ, was in his mid-30s, he found stability as a father, person and player. At a time when golf is no longer as important to him as it used to be, Johnson is playing the best of his career.
“You have to have a balance, I think,” said Johnson. “You have to find out what works for you. It’s been a lot of trial and error.”
Starting Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, Johnson will seek to become just the fourth consecutive winner in Masters tournament history and the first since Tiger Woods in 2001 and 2002. At the November pandemic delayed Masters, Johnson retreated the field for a 5-shot win while the 72-hole record was set at 20 in friendlier-than-normal conditions.
“You’d always dream of winning the Masters, but it was just a dream,” said Johnson. “I never thought it would come true, especially as a kid. However, it’s pretty cool when your dreams come true.”
It all started on a makeshift driving range and golf courses in and around Columbia, South Carolina, about 75 miles northeast of Augusta National. There, Dustin and Austin, who are three years younger, first dreamed of winning a green jacket – even though they probably never imagined doing it together.
“We just dreamed that maybe one day we could go there and see the place, you know?” Austin said. “I never thought he would win it and I would caddy for him and set the record. I still don’t think it hit me and sunk in. It’s hard to believe.”
Dustin was introduced to golf when he was 6 or 7 years old. His father, Scott Johnson, a retired all-state high school football player, had recorded the game and wasn’t doing very well. So Dustin’s grandmother called Jimmy Koosa, an instructor at the Weed Hill Driving Range in nearby Irmo, South Carolina, and asked him to give her son a lesson.
In the end, Koosa also taught her young grandson.
“Dustin would come and sit on the golf bag and feed the Doberman while I gave his father a lesson,” Koosa said. “That’s how he started. I yelled at him and said, ‘Get out of your pocket and get a club, swing, just hit the ball’ and he had no problem with it.”
What set Johnson apart from the hundreds of other kids Koosa has coached over the years was his work ethic. When young golfers reach the age of 13 or 14, their parents inevitably ask Koosa the same question: what do you think?
“Well, here is what I’m going to tell you,” Koosa tells them. “They are really fine, but when they get their license we’ll find out. They don’t know until they get that license. If they take the car to the driving range and / or golf course then maybe you have something. If they drive to the cinema or to one of their friends’ houses by car, then maybe not. “
Koosa never had to worry about where Johnson’s car was going to end up.
“He would always come to Weed Hill,” Koosa said. “He knew this was a place to practice and play. He loved playing the game and was enjoying figuring out how to get good at the game. I would say he figured it out pretty well . “”
From an old bean field to Augusta National
Weed Hill grew up as Johnson’s second home. He estimates that he hit a few hundred thousand golf balls there.
“They had lights on the line and most nights I turned the lights off when I left,” he said in November.
Years earlier, Bobby Weed, then a junior at Irmo High School, persuaded his father to let him convert some of his family’s land into a driving range so that he had a place to practice.
“I was just talking my dad out of an old bean field,” Weed said. “I think he thought it was a good way to keep me out of anger.”
The Weed Hill Driving Range became a family business. Weed’s grandmother hand washed the balls and served the area when he was at school. He eventually added a short game practice area and putting green.
There was also an 18 hole golf course across the street. What was once the Coldstream Country Club is now a public park.
“It was a golf course and in good shape – hardly,” said Johnson. “The greens would roll faster than a six [on a Stimpmeter] Rare.”
During the big championships, most of the greens roll on the Stimpmeter at 1pm or 2pm.
“But it was fun to play a course,” he said.
When Weed took an apprenticeship with the famous golf course architect Pete Dye, he left the driving range for others to administer. Koosa operated the facility for 35 years before finally closing it in 2015. An apartment complex is now in the land where the reigning Masters champion first mastered the game.
“It was a great place,” said Weed, who now has a golf course design and construction company in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
And it was here that Johnson spent countless weekends every day during the school year and summer months.
“When school was out, I had to go in [his bedroom] three times to wake him up, “said Scott Johnson.” But on Saturday morning he was there and woke me up to go to the golf course. “
Koosa recalled taking Dustin to a junior tournament in North Augusta, South Carolina when he was 12 or 13. On the first tee, Johnson hit a screaming hook that was out of bounds. As they walked down the fairway to find his ball, the student said, “Mr. Koosa, I promise I will not do this again. It will not happen again, I promise.”
“He believes he will get a good shot every time, which is what it takes to be a good player,” said Koosa.
Former club pro Rick Lang recognized Johnson’s self-confidence even at a young age. In the summer of 1998, they stood on the 18th green of the Golden Hills Country Club in Lexington, South Carolina. Johnson stared at a sleek 25-foot sidehill that he had to do to hit the course record of 7 under 64.
“I’ll make it,” said Johnson.
Yes, right, thought Lang to himself.
Sure enough, Johnson threw his putt in the middle of the trophy to tie the record Lang had set a few years earlier. To underpin his record lap, Johnson shot 64 the next day and 64 again two days later.
He was just 14 years old.
“It was very obvious that he had talent from a young age,” said Scott Johnson. “Every time we went to a junior competition and he played kids his age, it wasn’t fair.”
As a seventh grader, Johnson made the varsity golf team at Irmo High and landed in the state’s top 10. He missed the team’s banquet later that year because he was busy setting the course record on another local track. After his parents divorced in the late 1990s, he moved to Dutch Fork High in Irmo and, as a senior, led his team to a 27-stroke victory in the state tournament.
Even then, his ability to ward off disappointment was evident. Lang was paired with him at the Columbia City Golf Tournament when Johnson was in high school. On a par 3 that required a tee shot over water, Johnson missed out on his first two attempts and carded a triple bogey 6.
“Well, I think I’ll have to shoot 32 in the back,” he said.
And then he did.
“I started telling people that he was going to be a top 10 player in the world because I could just see it,” Lang said. “He could hit shots that other people couldn’t, he had length [and] he could bend it a little either way. He never thought of the miss. You can’t teach people that. “
After high school, Johnson briefly considered skipping college, going straight to Q-School, and playing professionally. His father sat him down and pulled out a PGA Tour media guide. Of the 125 best players on tour in 2002, Scott Johnson noted that all but one had played in college.
“I don’t know anyone who has played or been a longtime tour player who hasn’t gone to college and never had that experience,” Scott told him. “You go to college. You get an education and you go to tournaments and college pays for it. You get this experience that is valuable. I mean, I don’t know how to replace it.”
Dustin Johnson chose Coastal Carolina and used a gap year to complete the academic work he needed for admission. (He’d missed two years of high school golf because of truancy.) Terrell immediately set ground rules for his star player, including showing up and taking classes on time for practice at 6:30 a.m.
“That has curbed him in some; for others, that’s what is expected,” said Terrell. “That final year after high school and before that it was about what he wanted to do and when he wanted to be there.”
Johnson spent four years in Coastal Carolina, where he was twice All-American and took his teams to three direct appearances in the NCAA championships, including a fifth place as a senior. He played on the 2007 Walker Cup and Palmer Cup teams and received his PGA Tour card at Q-School later that year.
When an error occurs, on and off the course
Johnson enjoyed immediate success as a professional, winning at least one tour event in each of his first seven seasons, becoming the first player to make it straight out of college since Woods. That success, however, was largely overshadowed by his memorable missteps with the majors – an 82 final at the US Open in Pebble Beach in 2010; a penalty for founding his club in a bunker that cost him a place in a PGA championship playoff in Whistling Straits two months later; and then an out-of-bound shot at the 14th hole of the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s next year. At the 2017 Masters, Johnson was the overwhelming number 1 favorite in the world and winner of his last three PGA Tour events. But the day before the first lap he slipped on wooden stairs in his rental house and injured his lower back in the fall. He retired before the event began.
“Who could really get back from this except a guy like him?” Said Terrell.
To his credit, Johnson never made excuses and accepted the blame for his gaffes in majors.
“You fail and you don’t succeed or win often, so you fail or lose most of the time,” he said. “I like it because I’m against the golf course every day. And when something happens, I’m the only one to blame. And it’s just something I love.”
By the age of 30, Johnson’s off-course problems nearly brought his career to a halt. According to a report by Golf.com, he was suspended from the PGA Tour for six months in August 2014 for failing three drug tests, including two for cocaine. The tour refuted the report, saying he was taking voluntary leave for personal affairs.
The same report by Golf.com alleged that Johnson’s three-month hiatus two years earlier was due to a positive test for recreational drugs. Johnson had said he was absent from the competition because he pinched his back while lifting a jet ski.
Just before returning to the tour in January 2015, he told Sports Illustrated, “In the last four or five months I’ve really grown up and I’m starting to be the person my kids should look up to.” “
For the past six years, Dustin seemed like a changed man – on and off the course. After the three-putt and 1-bar loss in Chambers Bay, he recovered at the 2016 US Open in Oakmont and won with 3 strokes. This, too, forced him to fend off another stroke-costly mistake. He received a 1-shot penalty for moving his ball on the fifth green. In this last lap he was not informed of the penalty until the 12th tee. He shrugged again and won with three strokes against Jim Furyk, Shane Lowry and Scott Piercy. While much of the golfing world criticized the USGA for handling the situation, telling a player six holes to go that he was being punished for something that happened seven holes earlier, Johnson seemed the only person who wasn’t . I didn’t care.
“Sometimes you get hot out there, and sometimes your mistake turns into another mistake just because you have a bad attitude,” said Austin Johnson. “His attitude is so good. I think he rebounds well when he makes mistakes. People kind of take it the way he just doesn’t care. He just laughs when he hits a bad shot or does a double bogey or something. But that’s his mentality and it works really well for him. “
Winkle hopes that others’ perceptions of Dustin Johnson have changed because he has dealt with adversity, whether he won or lost. Not that Johnson cares much about what others think of him.
“People were talking about how he handled that moment of controversy [at Oakmont]I hope you look back on Chambers Bay and see how he handled it and Royal St. George’s and Whistling Straits and Pebble Beach and how he handled it [those].
“Hopefully they’ll think, ‘You know what? I’ve never seen the guy get angry on the golf course. I’ve never seen him swear on the golf course. I’ve never seen him throw a club in me never heard him say anything bad about anyone. ‘These are the things I’ve always known, but I hope people start putting these pieces together and realizing what a gentleman and standing- up type he always was and how he dealt with all these situations. “
Most importantly, Johnson found stability off-course. He has two sons, Tatum (6) and River (3), with his long-time girlfriend Paulina.
“There’s a lot of lonely time out there,” said Terrell. “How you fill in this time can be either a disadvantage or a help. Now he has such a good thing in his life. When he’s not playing golf, he takes her fishing, takes her to tennis class, and fetches her off.” School off. He’s like a soccer dad. “
According to Johnson, his two sons helped him put golf in an even better light.
“It’s different,” he said. “Before me and Paulina had children, golf was most important. As soon as you have a child, your perspective changes a lot. Now my family is most important, and golf is next or fits somewhere. But no matter what day you are win or lose, you come home and your kids and Paulina are there. I win, my kids are really happy. If I don’t, they’re still very happy. “
It was a constant strength for him too to have his brother in his pocket. Austin was a pretty good golfer as a kid but largely gave up the sport to focus on basketball. After a four-year career at the College of Charleston, he was ready to take a job in pharmaceutical sales before his older brother called in late 2013.
Dustin’s regular caddy Bobby Brown was unable to work for Perth International in Australia because of the impending birth of his child. So Dustin asked Austin to go. They have been together ever since. Some caddies criticized the move for not believing Austin qualified.
“A full-time caddy can view this as disrespect for improving their skills and working hard and investing time,” Terrell said. “So that he can go with someone with no experience, I can see where it looks like he doesn’t appreciate a caddie’s skills. So they’re going to get pissed off about it and talk about it. Who wouldn’t want this bag?” Some of that is envy. “
When Dustin won his next event, the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai in November 2013, Austin still didn’t get much recognition. It was like being Hemingway’s editor or Bobby Flay’s sous-chef. You know anyone could do it.
“He had no experience of caddling, but he played golf as a junior and was a good player,” said Dustin. “He was in enough game to know the basics, but for me it was more about just enjoying being on my pocket. I enjoyed spending time with him. They spend a lot of time on the golf course with your caddy Of course, when traveling, always practicing. Enjoying this time was enormous for me. He enjoyed it too, and obviously we had a lot of success. “
Together they have won 17 times on tour, including the two majors. And while the Masters win in November cemented Johnson’s rank as best player in the world, it also said a lot about Austin’s ability as a caddy.
“I think one of the big things was that I started with him later in his career,” said Austin. “Had we started his rookie year, we might have bumped a lot more heads or had a tendency to argue a bit. But now that we’ve both matured and he’s got a lot of experience out there, it really helped me a lot, myself to take with you. “
The last round of the Masters in November was the perfect opportunity to mop up between the brothers. Dustin took a 4-shot lead on Sunday, the fifth time he had the 54-hole lead in a major’s finals. He hadn’t won the last four times.
After bogeying the fourth hole, Austin misunderstood an 8-foot putt. Back-to-back bogies shortened Dustin’s tour in one fell swoop.
“I didn’t tell him much,” said Austin. “He told me more things. I was pretty calm from that way from # 5 to # 6 there.”
As they walked off the green, Dustin said to his brother, “Come on, we have to get it going, get a little tighter.”
On the sixth par-3 hole, Johnson hit it at 7 feet and calmly made a birdie putt. His lead was back to 3 shots. It only grew from there.
As they finally neared the 18th green, Dustin asked Austin where they were.
“He said he hadn’t looked at a scoreboard all day,” said Austin. “I told him we had a 5-shot lead.”
Dustin looked at his brother and smiled.
“I think we can handle it,” said Dustin.