‘It’s just golf’: Dustin Johnson figured out life, shrugged off major disappointments and found his way
- Senior college football writer
- Author of seven books on college football
- Graduate of the University of Georgia
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina — Six years ago, not long after Dustin Johnson had completed one of the worst collapses in golf history at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, he was behind the wheel of his courtesy car headed back to his rental house.
No one in the car — not his girlfriend, Paulina Gretzky; not his brother and caddie, Austin; not Austin’s girlfriend (and now wife), Samantha; not longtime agent David Winkle — had said anything. They were still in disbelief that Johnson 3-putted from 12 feet on the 72nd hole to lose by a shot to Jordan Spieth, extending Johnson’s quest for that elusive first major title.
All of a sudden, Johnson pulled the Lexus SUV over to the side of the road.
“Lighten up, guys!” Johnson shouted. “It’s just golf!”
“This was our time to be there for him and lift him up and make him realize how life goes on,” Winkle said. “The irony is that he’s the one now trying to lighten our mood and lift us up. It just showed me what a man he was and what a stand-up guy he is, and how he doesn’t let golf define who he is and that he does keep things in perspective and moves on.”
While Dustin and Paulina were packing their bags at the rental house, Winkle and Paulina’s father, NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, waited in the kitchen.
“Davey, want a beer?” Gretzky asked.
“Wayne, I’ve never wanted a beer more,” Winkle said.
The men sat down at the kitchen table, and Gretzky confessed something.
“In all my years of sports, I’ve never felt that kind of heartache,” he said.
A day later, Johnson was back on the golf course with Gretzky. He never mentioned what transpired on the 18th green at Chambers Bay.
“We were all just so stunned by the moment, but Dustin was already in his moving-on process,” Winkle said. “That’s just his greatest gift, the ability to put things behind him, learn from them and flush away the negative aspect of the memory.”
That ability to shrug off disappointment has allowed him to overcome so many near misses in major championships early in his PGA Tour career and navigate 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,” Winkle said. “He lives in the present and the future. He doesn’t spend one second of his time worrying about things he can’t control, and things in the past certainly fall into that category. You can’t change things that have already happened.”
Maybe that imposing, country-boy strong body that has strutted its way to the No. 1 ranking in the world, 24 tour victories, two major titles, including the 2020 Masters and more than $71 million in career earnings is already scarred over from having its heart broken so many times.
“I think every elite player is searching for what Dustin has,” said Allen Terrell, the director of coaching at the Dustin Johnson School of Golf in Myrtle Beach. “I don’t think it has come easy for him.”
‘Get off that bag and get a club, swing, just hit the ball’
All that has happened — the multiple heartbreaks at majors, the questions about whether he was smart enough to be elite, the reported trouble with drugs that once earned him a six-month suspension from the PGA Tour — seem like distant memories now. As the player known as DJ reaches his mid-30s, he has found stability as a father, person and player. At a time when golf doesn’t mean as much to him as it once did, Johnson is playing the best of his career.
“You’ve got to have a balance, I think,” Johnson said. “You got to figure out what works for you. It’s been a lot of trial-and-error.”
Starting Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, Johnson will attempt to become only the fourth back-to-back winner in Masters Tournament history and the first since Tiger Woods in 2001 and 2002. At the pandemic-delayed Masters in November, Johnson pulled away from the field for a 5-shot victory while setting the 72-hole scoring record at 20 under in friendlier than normal conditions.
“You always would dream about winning the Masters, but it was just a dream,” Johnson said. “Never really thought it would come true, especially not as a kid. It’s pretty cool, though, when your dreams do 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. That’s where Dustin and Austin, who is 3 years younger, first dreamed of winning a green jacket — even if they probably never imagined doing it together.
“We just dreamed of maybe one day going there, seeing the place, you know?” Austin said. “I never imagined him winning it and me caddying for him and setting the scoring record. I still don’t think it’s hit me yet 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 former all-state high school football player, had taken up the game and wasn’t very good. So Dustin’s grandmother called Jimmy Koosa, an instructor at Weed Hill Driving Range in nearby Irmo, South Carolina, and asked him to give her son lessons.
Koosa ended up teaching her young grandson, too.
“Dustin would come and sit on the golf bag and feed the Doberman while I was giving his daddy a lesson,” Koosa said. “So that was kind of how he got started. I’d yell at him and say, ‘Get off that bag and get a club, swing, just hit that ball,’ and he had no problem trying to do that.”
What made Johnson different from hundreds of other kids Koosa has coached over the years was his work ethic. Inevitably, when young golfers reach the age of 13 or 14, their parents ask Koosa the same question: What do you think?
“Well, here’s what I’ll tell you,” Koosa says to them. “They’re doing really well, but when they get their driver’s license, then we’ll find out. You don’t know until they get that driver’s license. If they take the car to the driving range and/or the golf course, then you might have something. If they take the car to the movie theater or over to one of their buddies’ houses, then maybe not.”
Koosa never had to worry about where Johnson’s car would wind up.
“He would always come to Weed Hill,” Koosa said. “He knew that was a place where he could practice, and a place where he could play. He loved playing the game and enjoyed trying to figure out how to get good at the game. I’d say he pretty much figured it out.”
From an old bean field to Augusta National
Growing up, Weed Hill was Johnson’s second home. He estimates he hit a few hundred thousand golf balls there.
“They had lights on the range, and most nights I would shut the lights off when I was leaving,” he said in November.
Years earlier, Bobby Weed, then a junior at Irmo High School, persuaded his father to let him convert a patch of his family’s land into a driving range so he would have a place to practice.
“I just talked my dad out of an old bean field,” Weed said. “I guess he thought it was a good way to keep me out of trouble.”
Weed Hill Driving Range became a family business. Weed’s grandmother washed balls by hand and operated the range when he was in school. He eventually added a short-game practice area and a putting green.
There was also an 18-hole golf course, sort of, across the road. What was once Coldstream Country Club is now a public park.
“It was a golf course and was in good shape — barely,” Johnson said. “The greens would roll faster than a six [on a Stimpmeter] rarely.”
During major championships, most greens roll at about 13 or 14 on the Stimpmeter.
“But it was a fun course to play,” he said.
When Weed accepted an apprenticeship under famed golf course architect Pete Dye, he left the driving range for others to manage. Koosa operated the facility for 35 years before shutting it down for good in 2015. An apartment complex now sits on 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 firm in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
And it was where Johnson spent countless weekends during the school year and every day during the summer months.
“When school was in, I’d have to go in [his bedroom] three times to wake him up,” Scott Johnson said. “But on Saturday morning, he was in there waking 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 headed out of bounds. As they walked down the fairway to find his ball, the pupil said, “Mr. Koosa, I promise you, I won’t do that again. That won’t happen anymore, I promise.”
“He believes that he’s gonna hit a good shot every time, which is what it takes to be a good player,” Koosa said.
Former club professional Rick Lang recognized Johnson’s confidence at a young age, too. In the summer of 1998, they were standing on the 18th green at Golden Hills Country Club in Lexington, South Carolina. Johnson was staring down a slick, sidehill 25-footer that he needed to make to tie the course record of 7-under 64.
“I’m going to make it,” Johnson said.
Yeah, right, Lang thought to himself.
Sure enough, Johnson knocked his putt right in the middle of the cup to tie the record that Lang had established a couple of years earlier. Then, to back up his record-setting round, Johnson shot 64 the next day and 64 again two days later.
He was just 14 years old.
“It was very obvious he had talent from a young age,” Scott Johnson said. “Every time we’d go to a junior competition and he was playing kids his own age, it wasn’t fair.”
As a seventh-grader, Johnson made the varsity golf team at Irmo High and finished in the top 10 in the state. He missed the team’s banquet later that year because he was busy setting the course record at another local track. He transferred to Dutch Fork High in Irmo following his parents’ divorce in the late 1990s and led his team to a 27-stroke victory in the state tournament as a senior.
Even back then, his ability to shrug off disappointment was evident. Lang was paired with him in the Columbia City Golf Tournament when Johnson was in high school. On a par-3 that required a tee shot over water, Johnson came up short on his first two attempts and carded a triple-bogey 6.
“Well, I guess I’m going to have to shoot 32 on the back,” he said.
And then he did.
“I started telling people he’s 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 hit, he had length [and] he could curve it a little bit both ways. He never thought about the miss. That’s something you can’t teach people.”
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 top 125 players on tour in 2002, Scott Johnson noted that all but one had played in college.
“I don’t know of anybody that’s played or has been a longtime Tour player that didn’t go to college and didn’t get that experience,” Scott told him. “You go to college. You get an education and you go to tournaments and the college pays for it. You get that experience, which is valuable. I mean, I don’t know how you can replace it.”
Dustin Johnson decided to play at Coastal Carolina and used a gap year to finish the academic work he needed for admission. (He had missed two years of high school golf because of truancy.) Right away, Terrell set ground rules for his star player, including showing up on time for 6:30 a.m. workouts and attending classes.
“That reined him in some; for others it’s what’s expected,” Terrell said. “That last year out of high school and even before then, it was about what he wanted to do and when he wanted to be there.”
Johnson ended up spending four years at Coastal Carolina, where he was a two-time All-American and led his teams to three straight appearances in the NCAA championships, including a fifth-place finish as a senior. He played on the 2007 Walker Cup and Palmer Cup teams and then earned his PGA Tour card at Q-school later that year.
When failure comes, on and off the course
Johnson had immediate success as a pro, winning at least one tour event in each of his first seven seasons, the first player to do it right out of college since Woods. But that success was largely overshadowed by his unforgettable missteps in majors — a final-round 82 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010; a penalty for grounding his club in a bunker, which cost him a spot in a playoff in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits two months later; and then an out-of-bounds shot on the 14th hole of the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s the next year. At the 2017 Masters, Johnson was the overwhelming favorite as the No. 1-ranked player in the world and winner of his previous three PGA Tour events. But he slipped on wooden stairs at his rental house the day before the first round, injuring his lower back in the fall. He withdrew before the event began.
“Who could really come back from that besides a guy like him?” Terrell said.
To his credit, Johnson never made excuses and accepted blame for his gaffes in majors.
“You fail and you don’t succeed or win very often, so you fail or lose most of the time,” he said. “I like it, because it’s me versus the golf course every day. And if something happens, I’m the only one to blame. And it’s just something about that that I love.”
At age 30, Johnson’s off-the-course problems nearly derailed his career. He was reportedly suspended by the PGA Tour for six months in August 2014 for failing three drug tests, including two for cocaine, according to a report by Golf.com. The tour refuted the report and said he was taking a voluntary leave of absence for personal issues.
The same Golf.com report alleged that Johnson’s three-month hiatus two years earlier was because of a positive test for recreational drugs; Johnson had said he was absent from competition because he tweaked his back while lifting a Jet Ski.
Nonetheless, shortly before he returned to the tour in January 2015, he told Sports Illustrated: “Over these past four or five months I’ve really grown up, and I am starting to become the person I want my kids to look up to.”
Over the past six years, Dustin has seemed like a changed man — on and off the course. After the three-putt and 1-stroke loss at Chambers Bay, he redeemed himself at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, winning by 3 strokes. That one, too, forced him to shrug off another stroke-costing mistake. He was assessed a 1-shot penalty because his ball moved on the fifth green. He didn’t find out about the penalty during that final round until the 12th tee. He shrugged it off again and went on to win by 3 shots over Jim Furyk, Shane Lowry and Scott Piercy. While much of the golf world criticized the USGA for the way the situation was handled — telling a player six holes from the finish that he was being penalized for something that had happened seven holes earlier — Johnson seemed like the only person who wasn’t bothered.
“Sometimes you get hot out there, and then sometimes your mistakes turn into another mistake, just because you’ve got a bad attitude,” Austin Johnson said. “His attitude is so good. I think he rebounds well when he makes mistakes. People kind of take that as, you know, he just doesn’t care. He just laughs when he hits a bad shot or makes a double bogey or something. But that’s his mentality, and it works really well for him.”
Winkle hopes others’ perceptions of Dustin Johnson have changed because of how he handled adversity whether he was winning or losing. Not that Johnson cares much about what other people think about him.
“People were talking about how he handled that moment of controversy [at Oakmont], compartmentalized it and moved on and took care of business,” Winkle said. “I’m hoping that they look back at Chambers Bay and see how he handled that, and they look back at Royal St. George’s and Whistling Straits and Pebble Beach and how he handled [those].
“Hopefully, then they’ll think, ‘You know what? I’ve never seen the guy get mad on the golf course. I’ve never seen him swear on the golf course. I’ve never seen him throw a club in his bag. I’ve never heard him say anything bad about anyone else.’ Those are the things I’ve known forever, but I hope people start putting those pieces together and realize what a gentleman and stand-up guy he’s always been and how he has handled all these situations.”
More than anything else, Johnson has found stability off the course. He has two sons, Tatum, 6, and River, 3, with his longtime girlfriend Paulina.
“There’s a lot of lonely time out there,” Terrell said. “How you fill that time can either be a detriment or a help. Now, he has such a quality thing in his life. If he’s not playing golf, he’s taking them fishing, taking them to tennis lessons and picking them up from school. He’s like a soccer dad.”
According to Johnson, his two sons have helped him put golf into even greater perspective.
“It’s different,” he said. “Before me and Paulina had kids, golf was most important. Once you have a child, your perspectives change a lot. Now, my family’s most important, and golf is next, or fits in there somewhere. But no matter what kind of day you have, whether you win or lose, you come home and your kids and Paulina, they’re there. I win, my kids are really happy. If I don’t, they’re still really happy.”
Having his brother on his bag has been a steadying force for him on the course, too. 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 caddie, Bobby Brown, was unable to work at the Perth International in Australia because of the pending birth of his child. So Dustin asked Austin to go. They’ve been together ever since. Some caddies criticized the move because they didn’t think Austin was qualified.
“A full-time caddie may see that as disrespect because they do hone their skills and work hard and put in the time,” Terrell said. “For him to go with someone with no experience, I can see where that may appear like not appreciating a caddie’s skill set. So they’re going to be pissed about that and speak up about it. Who wouldn’t want that 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 credit. It was like being Hemingway’s editor or Bobby Flay’s sous-chef. You know, anyone could do it.
“He didn’t have any experience caddying, but he played golf as a junior and he was a good player,” Dustin said. “He had been around the game enough to know the basics, but for me, it was more about I just enjoyed him being on the bag. I enjoyed spending the time with him. You spend a lot of time with your caddie on the golf course, traveling, always practicing. So, to be able to enjoy that time was huge for me. He enjoyed it, too, and obviously, we’ve had a lot of success.”
Together, they’ve won 17 times on Tour, including the two majors. And while the Masters victory in November solidified Johnson’s ranking as the best player in the world, it also said a lot about Austin’s abilities as a caddie.
“I think one of the big things was that I started with him later in his career,” Austin said. “Had we started his rookie year, I think we might’ve butted heads a lot more, or had a tendency to argue a little bit. But now that we’ve both matured more, and he’s had a lot of experience out there, it kind of helped bring me along a lot.”
There was the perfect opportunity for a dust-up between the brothers during the final round of the Masters in November. Dustin took a 4-shot lead into Sunday, the fifth time he had taken the 54-hole lead into the final round of a major. He had failed to win the previous four times.
After bogeying the fourth hole, Austin misread an 8-foot putt. Back-to-back bogeys cut Dustin’s lead to 1 stroke.
“I wasn’t saying much to him,” Austin said. “He was more saying stuff to me. I was pretty quiet from that walk from No. 5 to No. 6 there.”
As they walked off the green, Dustin told his brother, “Come on, we need to get it going, tighten up a little bit.”
On the par-3 sixth hole, Johnson knocked it to 7 feet and calmly made a birdie putt. His lead was back to 3 shots. It only grew from there.
Finally, as they approached the 18th green, Dustin asked Austin where they stood.
“He said that he hadn’t looked at a scoreboard the entire day,” Austin said. “I told him that we had a 5-shot lead.”
Dustin looked at his brother and smiled.
“I think we can handle this one,” Dustin said.
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