When Dustin Johnson captured his first Major, the US Open in June, the main talking points were not about the state of his golf game and how he had romped to a three-shot victory, but rather on two ‘sideshows’.
The first was the farcical decision to penalise him a shot for causing his ball to move on the fifth green. Despite being cleared by a rules official of no wrongdoing and playing partner Lee Westwood agreeing with that, another official had approached him at the 12th hole to say they would be reviewing the incident after the round and he faced a possible penalty.
With that hanging over his head and thoughts of a first Major victory possibly being taken away by a rules official, the 32-year-old American – still carrying the label of ‘the best player to not win a Major’ – faced an anxious, challenging last seven holes. However, he stood firm and eventually signed for a 68 and a five-under total, although he was indeed punished a stroke. Still, four under was three ahead of the three-man group chasing him.
Johnson’s peers backed the American. Rory McIlroy called the punishment ‘amateurish’ and Jordan Spieth said it was ‘a joke’. A little while later the USGA apologised, saying ‘we regret the distraction’ caused to the golfer.
That wasn’t all, on what should have been a day of sheer joy and celebration for the finest long-hitter in the game today.
There was another distraction.
As Johnson walked up the stairs at Oakmont Country Club, carrying his young daughter, his fiancee Paulina Gretzky was at his side. The 27-year-old model was wearing what was described as ‘a short, tight-fitting white dress’ and a Fox Sports cameraman seemed to pay more attention with the lens on her backside than on the actual more significant moment.
Social media went into meltdown, obviously letting the trolls, the chauvinists, and the die-hard feminists declare a kangaroo court in session. Again, while everyone should have been talking about a superb golfing performance by the first-time Major winner, it descended into chaos.
It was left to ‘Gentleman Jim’ Furyk to bring things back on course, because in the buildup to the US Open he’d been gushing about his countryman. ‘I love the talent and skills. Dustin is explosive. It’s been a lot of just not knocking in putts at the right time. It could happen soon, and when it does, he could be off to the races and win three Majors in four or five years.’
Johnson himself has never been one to present a masterclass in speech-making, but, when he was finally allowed to talk about his golf and not the distractions, he was eloquent in getting his view across.
‘I think it’s well deserved. After everything I’ve been through in the Majors. I’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times,’ he said.
‘To finally get that Major win, it’s huge. It gives me a lot more confidence, going into every Major, to know I can win. So it’s definitely a start to becoming a great player.’
Finally, Johnson had converted a top 10 into a Major trophy. Heading into Oakmont he’d had 11 top-10 finishes dating back to 2009. Probably the one that hurt the most was in the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay. Needing a birdie to force a playoff and an eagle to win, the prodigious hitter reached the par-five green in two.
Faced with a 12-footer for that eagle, he tightened up and missed by four feet. Still, that would be enough to force the playoff. He missed and it was subsequently described, as such moments these days routinely are, as ‘a choke’. A spectacular one at that.
It had happened before. Johnson once missed out on a playoff at the PGA Championship because he forgot the rules on the 72nd hole and grounded his club in a hazard. And at the 2010 US Open he had started the final round with a three-shot lead but collapsed to an astonishing 82.
Swing coach Claude Harmon reckoned that in the wake of Johnson’s meltdown at Chambers Bay, he went to the player’s home that night and the two of them just ‘sat there’.
‘There was nothing to say, nothing to talk about. Nothing. But I’m close to DJ and I just wanted to be there with him, to let him know I’m there in support. That I’m not only his swing instructor but someone who cares deeply about him.’
After finally breaking his Major duck, Johnson seems to have grown in stature. The 1.94m tall long-hitter appears closer to 2m, that he is master in all he surveyed. He’s ticked the box that said he was a Major champion and he doesn’t want to stop there. No 1 in the world remains a target, a Ryder Cup victory, and of course regular victories on the US Tour.
‘I’ve got a great support system with Paulina, my son Tatum, my family, my team that’s around me. So it’s been a great road. I’m definitely a stronger person coming out the other side,’ he told media at Oakmont.
‘I’m different. I’ve grown up a lot. Having a son and starting a family has definitely made me grow up. But I felt like I’ve handled myself very well in the past in the Majors, just didn’t quite get over that hump. I finally did.’
That’s not the only ‘hump’ Johnson has got over.
Somehow, he seems to have found happiness on and off the course, after years of finger-pointing and downright abuse. The celebrated Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly famously remarked that ‘Dustin is so dense, light bends around him’.
So, let’s get to the dark side. In August 2014 Johnson was suspended from the PGA Tour for six months.
It was widely reported – and not disputed – that he failed three drug tests: one for marijuana in 2009 and two for cocaine, in 2012 and 2014. He was previously suspended for the 2012 failed test, but that suspension was never made public. Under the PGA Tour’s drug-testing policies, the tour is not required to disclose any disciplinary actions against players who test positive for recreational drugs.
In 2014 Johnson announced that he was taking a leave of absence from professional golf. ‘I will use this time to seek professional help for personal challenges I have faced,’ he said in a statement issued by his management company. ‘By committing the time and resources necessary to improve my mental health, physical well-being and emotional foundation, I am confident I will be better equipped to fulfil my potential and become a consistent champion.’
The PGA Tour reacted at the time to reports of a suspension. ‘With regard to media reports that Dustin Johnson has been suspended by the PGA Tour, this is to clarify that Mr Johnson has taken a voluntary leave of absence and is not under a suspension from the PGA Tour.’ Smoke and mirrors, they called it.
Oliver Brown, in the London Daily Telegraph – a reputable, ‘old-fashioned broadsheet paper from the Fleet Street days’ – wrote in November 2014: ‘Heard the one about the top-10 golfer who failed three drug tests in five years, including two for cocaine, while allegedly carrying on liaisons with the wife of at least one fellow tour player? If not, then those PGA Tour mandarins in Florida would prefer to keep it that way. For the name of Dustin Johnson is one they have, for three months, been seeking desperately to expunge. Johnson has become to his sport what his namesake Ben has been to athletics ever since 1988: a pariah, a persona non grata, a great unmentionable.’
There is a great brotherhood on the PGA Tour – it has often been referred to as an ‘exclusive men’s club’ – and at the time of Johnson’s absence from the circuit, Phil Mickelson was asked for his thoughts. ‘It’s kind of a touchy issue – I’d rather just stay away,’ he replied. And the usually forthcoming Graeme McDowell admitted that it is ‘tough to know what’s going down’.
What does seem a common thread is that Johnson, while announcing his engagement to the model daughter of former Canadian ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, was consuming industrial measures of alcohol in the bars around Jupiter Island, Florida, and his wandering eye was an open secret. It is said Wayne Gretzky hauled Johnson aside and warned him in no uncertain terms where the relationship with his daughter was going if he didn’t immediately get himself on the straight and narrow.
Johnson’s surge in form and confidence suggests he has learned his lesson and that the family are a happy unit, which means he’s concentrating on his golf – and the results are following.
When he won the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick in September, he was winning the tournament for a third time, but on this occasion it was with a record-breaking 23-under-par total. It was such a jaw-dropping display that Brandel Chamblee predicted on Golf Channel: ‘Not only do I think Dustin Johnson has the talent to be the next No 1, but I think he has the talent to hold that position for triple-digit weeks.’
Former world No 1 David Duval also seemed to think it’s just a matter of time before the American climbs to the top of the rankings. ‘All the tools he has, I believe, are unmatched,’ Duval said. ‘The ease with which Dustin Johnson makes it look, especially when he’s starting to wedge it in the past year like he has and his putting, is a great thing.’ Tied with Jason Day on three US Tour wins in 2016, Johnson is actually leading the race for Golfer of the Year acknowledgement, given that one of those victories was a Major. He also topped the FedExCup race headed into the final event, with that $10-million prize at stake.
Johnson played the 16 par-fives in 15 under par at Crooked Stick. By the end of that event he sat atop the driving statistics, with an average of 314.2m from the 58 rounds he’d played this year. His scoring average of 69 also put him at the top of the standings, showing that the consistency is now there.
In the past couple of decades, course designers have spoken about making layouts ‘John Daly proof’ or ‘Tiger proof’. Now it’s a reference attributed to Dustin Johnson. No less a great than Gary Player has often suggested that instead of making the courses longer, they should cut back on ball flight and the distances the modern clubs gives the golfer. ‘I’ve told people countless times that you’re going to see players driving the first green at the Old Course St Andrews with the advances technology has made. They’ve laughed at me, but mark my words,’ he said.
When one looks at Johnson off the tee, you can believe Player. However, the course is the same for everyone and if Johnson is the golfer making the best use of the modern tools, mixing it with talent and hard work, he deserves to be reaping the rewards he is.
YEAR-END WORLD RANKINGS
(As at 19 September)
2008 Turning Stone Resort Championship
2009 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am
2010 BMW Championship, AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am
2011 The Barclays
2012 FedEx St Jude Classic
2013 WGC-HSBC Champion, Hyundai Tournament of Champions
2015 WGC-Cadillac Championship
2016 US Open, BMW Championship, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational