Written by Alan Shipnuck, photographs by Jamie Squire and Harry How
There is no better metaphor for Dustin Johnson than slipping on the stairs. For all of his victories—17 and counting on the PGA Tour—the career of the lanky 33-year-old has been defined by pratfalls. There was the lost ball during a final-round 82 to blow a three-shot lead at the 2010 U.S. Open; the 72nd-hole penalty for grounding his club in an ill-defined bunker at the ’10 PGA Championship, costing him a spot in a playoff; the wicked slice out of bounds down the stretch at the ’11 Open Championship, which allowed Darren Clarke to cruise to victory. More seriously, there was his six-month leave of absence to address personal challenges.
In that time away from the game Johnson reinvented himself personally and professionally, and he has been a dominant force since his return in early ’15. He overpowered Oakmont, the scariest course this side of Carnoustie, to take the 2016 U.S. Open, and last winter summited the World Ranking. Johnson had won three straight tournaments heading into the ’17 Masters to establish himself as the overwhelming favorite, and then he was tripped up by fate’s fickle finger: Padding around a rental home in socks on the eve of the tournament, he slipped on some wooden stairs and wrenched his back. Johnson was forced to withdraw from the Masters and the rest of the summer was a bust, too, as he was a nonfactor in all three majors. It was impossible not to wonder if those stumbles would turn into another crisis.
“Oh, I’m not going anywhere,” says Johnson in his laconic drawl, which betrays his upbringing in South Carolina. “I’m just getting started.”
This bedrock confidence is not as obvious as Johnson’s manifold physical gifts, but his self-belief is the key to understanding who he is as a golfer. “There’s never been a shot Dustin doesn’t think he can pull off,” says his brother-caddie, Austin. “And he’s kind of right, because the harder the shot, the more he concentrates and so it usually works out, even if it’s not exactly the right play.”
Dustin’s jock swagger comes from a lifetime of success on various playing fields. Growing up outside of Columbia, he was an All-Star pitcher in Little League and a standout youth basketball player, not surprising since he’s the grandson of Art Whisnant, a Hall of Fame college basketball player who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. “I think he is the best athlete ever to play professional golf,” Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade’s vice president of PGA Tour operations, says of the 6’ 4”, 205-pound Johnson. “He has almost freakish natural talent. He’s the kind of guy who can do anything. Give him a basketball, he can dunk it in bare feet. Give him a baseball, he can throw it 90 miles per hour. . . .” Johnson’s father Scott—a high school star in basketball, baseball, football, soccer and track—picks up the thread. “He can bowl 200 games all night long,” he says. “Don’t shoot pool for money around him, either.” Austin adds, “He can tear it up on the water. On a wakeboard he can jump the wake, easily. I’ve seen him get 10 feet of air on a Jet Ski. There was a 60-foot yacht going about 30 mph, and it was kicking up a wake with six-foot waves. Dustin launched off that like it was the X Games.”
Johnson began harnessing his awesome athleticism while an undergrad at Coastal Carolina, the lovely campus on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach. He was a three-time All-America as a Chanticleer, and during his senior year, in 2007, Johnson was both a semifinalist for the Ben Hogan Award and member of the U.S. Walker Cup team that is widely considered the greatest squad in the event’s history. It was plain to see how his success would translate to the pro game. “I remember watching Dustin at a college event,” says his agent, David Winkle, “and there was this 330-yard dogleg par-4 cut through the trees. All the guys were laying up off the tee but Dustin’s ball fell out of the sky about 15 feet from the hole. Walking off the green I congratulated him on the shot and he said, ‘Dude, it was a perfect distance for my three-wood.’ I remember thinking very clearly at that moment that some day this kid was going to win the Masters.”
Johnson won as a rookie on the PGA Tour and kept on winning. Things have always come a little too easy for him, to the point that his swing coach, Butch Harmon, once lamented, “D.J. has always relied on tremendous natural ability to carry him through. It’s taken him all the way to being a top 10 player. But every other guy in the top 10 outworks him.”
It was only when the game was taken away from him that Johnson’s trajectory changed. During his leave of absence he worked with a life coach and several clinicians, gaining hard-won self-knowledge and new mechanisms for coping with stress. For the first time he dedicated himself to maximizing his latent gifts, signing up for grueling sessions every day with Joey Diovisalvi, the hyper-intense trainer who helped take Vijay Singh to No. 1.
Still, the key lesson might have been that during the toughest time of his life, he had the unconditional support of Paulina Gretzy, her father, Wayne, and the rest of their large family. In early 2013, Johnson had begun dating the glamorous daughter of the greatest hockey player of all time, and by that summer they were engaged. In the spring of ’14 they learned that Paulina was pregnant. It was only a few months later that Johnson took his leave from the game. “I think for a long time Dustin had been struggling with the question, ‘Who loves me and believes in me, not as a golfer but as a person?’ ” says Diovisalvi. “In that period of reflection he came to discover that Paulina and her family were his sanctuary. In the hardest of times they had his back. Love became the defining thing in his life, and when you’re finally not afraid to love back, that’s a life-changing shift.”
Their baby boy, Tatum, was born in February 2015. As a teen, Johnson lived through the acrimonious divorce of his parents; fatherhood gave him a purpose that had always been missing, and Tatum became a regular presence on the PGA Tour, earning a modicum of Internet fame when he hilariously stole Jordan Spieth’s putter on the practice green. (Another son, River, was born on the eve of the ’17 U.S. Open; Dustin and Paulina hope to wed soon but first want the construction on their waterfront house in Jupiter, Fla. completed.) All the pieces were coming together for Johnson, but the final little push came from a man they call the Great One. “I don’t know golf,” says Wayne Gretzky, an 11-handicapper, “but I know sports. There are great talents at every level. What separates the superstars is preparation and commitment. The notion that I’m some kind of guru to Dustin is overblown. He was a top 10 player long before I met him. But if I’ve helped in any way it’s with the message that to be the best he has to pay the price. I’ve encouraged him to set very high goals for himself. Tiger-like goals. So this year you’ve won three tournaments and a major. Next year make it five tournaments and two majors. Don’t be afraid to be the best. Embrace it.”
Which Johnson has, all of it: the interviews, photo shoots, autographs, the scrutiny and expectations. “He doesn’t want to be a guy who got to No. 1 for a while,” says Diovisalvi. “He wants to be there forever.”
Driving all of this for Johnson is the sense that he is now playing for something larger. “You can’t get this far by yourself,” he says. “I’m so lucky to have the people around me that I do. To have their love and support no matter what—that means the world to me. Do I want to make them proud? For sure. Winning is a lot more fun when you have people to share it with.”
Exactly how much can Johnson win? That is suddenly golf’s most tantalizing question. Rory McIlroy is unquestionably the most towering talent of this generation but there is a growing belief among the golf cognoscenti that Johnson’s best stuff is of the same standard, and that, notwithstanding the swoon that followed slipping on the stairs in Augusta, Johnson has become a more consistent force. If there are any lingering questions about his grit—or his. wedge game or ability to hole putts in the clutch—Johnson answered them with a resounding victory in August 2017 at the Northern Trust Open. Five strokes down to Jordan Spieth with 13 holes to play, Johnson reeled him in with relentless excellence, including a do-or-die 20-footer to save par on the 72nd hole. In sudden death Johnson smashed the drive of the year, a 341-yard missile that carried a water hazard and led to a decisive birdie. The clutch putt and cartoonish drive only added to his legend. Says voluble PGA Tour winner James Hahn, “You know the feeling when you’re an average golfer and you’re playing with a guy who’s on pace to break the course record and he hasn’t missed a shot and every part of his game is on fire and you don’t know whether or not to talk to him or just get out of his way? That’s what it feels like for any of us to play with Dustin right now. Every drive is hammered, every iron shot is dead at the flag, every putt looks like it’s going in. He looks as if he’s going to shoot the course record every time he tees it up. And not only does the golf look different, it also sounds different. The irons are so crisp. Off the driver head it sounds like gunfire. You only hear that once every decade or two. Tiger Woods, when he was in his prime, hit the ball like that. Rory has some of that. With Dustin it’s every swing. He’s a machine.”
Yet machines don’t evolve, as Johnson has. One of the keys to his stellar play over the last two seasons has been a commitment to dialing in his wedge game by using a TrackMan to chart distances during every practice session. He has developed a precise system that was on vivid display at the Northern Trust, when he stuffed a series of wedges down the stretch: “A half-shot with my 60 [degree wedge] goes 85 yards. I’ve got a three-quarter swing that goes 95, and a stock swing goes 105. With my 52, my half goes 105, three-quarter 115, and so on. Now I trust the swings and I trust the numbers, so all I have to do is execute the shot.” In 2016 he surged to fourth on the PGA Tour in proximity to the hole from 50 to 125 yards (up from 53rd in ’15) and he has sustained the focus, ranking ninth in ’17.
Why did it take him so dang long to make these simple changes?
“Well, I mean, that’s a tough question,” Johnson says with a laugh. “I guess you have to make some mistakes before you figure out all the answers.”
Which is a nifty coda for the life and times of a singular talent. Next up for this son of the South is to win the green jacket he has always seemed destined to don. Let’s just hope that his next rental home in Augusta is single-story.
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