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Dustin Johnson: can golfs world No 1 stay out of the rough?

Natural talent took him to the very top of golf cocaine brought him right back down. Now with the partying over and sporting royalty calling him family, will Dustin Johnson be unbeatable at the Open? By Alan Shipnuck

There is no better metaphor for Dustin Johnson than slipping on the stairs. For all of his victories 15 and counting on golfs 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 in the 2010 US Open; the 72nd hole penalty for grounding his club in an ill-defined bunker at the 2010 PGA Championship, costing him a spot in a playoff; the wicked slice out of bounds down the stretch at the 2011 Open Championship, which allowed Darren Clarke to cruise to victory.

More seriously, there was the fall from grace that came with his six-month leave of absence to address personal challenges that followed the revelations on that Johnson had failed three drug tests, for marijuana and cocaine. 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 2015.

He overpowered Oakmont, the scariest course this side of Carnoustie, to take the 2016 US Open, and this winter topped the world rankings. Johnson had won three straight tournaments heading into the US Masters, the immensely watchable competition on a lush Georgia course which heralds the start of spring for golf fans. Johnson had established himself as the overwhelming favourite and then he was tripped up by fates fickle finger: padding around a rental home in socks on the eve of the tournament, he slipped on the wooden stairs and wrenched his back. He was forced to withdraw and, in the two months since, his game has deserted him, including desultory performances at Jack Nicklauss Memorial tournament and the US Open.

So Johnson arrives at Royal Birkdale outside Liverpool for the Open on 20 July at another crossroads: can he prosper on a course that has always favoured his brand of macho ball striking and take the next step to greatness, or will his recent stumbles turn into another crisis?

Private joke: Dustin Johnson with Tiger Woods, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, February 2013. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Oh, Im not going anywhere, Johnson says in his laconic drawl, which reveals his upbringing in South Carolina. Im just getting started.

This bedrock confidence is not as obvious as Johnsons manifold physical gifts, but the self-belief is the key to understanding who he is as a golfer. Theres never been a shot Dustin doesnt think he can pull off, says his brother/caddie Austin. And hes kind of right, because the harder the shot the more he concentrates and so it usually works out, even if its not exactly the right play.

Dustins jock swagger comes from a lifetime of success on various playing fields. He was an All-Star pitcher in Little League baseball and a standout youth basketball player, not surprising since hes 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, club brand TaylorMades vice president of PGA Tour operations, says of the 6ft 4in, 14st 6lb Johnson. He has a freakish natural talent. He can do anything. Give him a basketball, he can dunk it in bare feet. Give him a baseball, he can throw it 90mph

Winner: Dustin Johnson, US Open, Oakmont Country Club, Pennsylvania, 19 June 2016. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Johnsons father Scott a high school star in basketball, baseball, American football, soccer, track and field picks up the thread. He can bowl 200 games all night long, he says. Dont 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. Last summer I saw him get 10ft of air on a Jet Ski. There was a 60ft yacht going about 30mph and it was kicking up a wake with 6ft waves. Dustin launched off that like it was the X Games.

Things have always come a little too easy for Johnson, to the point that his swing coach Butch Harmon once lamented: He has always relied on tremendous natural ability to carry him through. Its taken him all the way to being a top 10 player. But every other guy in the top 10 outworks him. Except when it came to partying, at which Johnson was the undisputed clubhouse leader.

It was only when the game was taken away from him that Johnsons 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 maximising his latent gifts, signing up for gruelling sessions every day with Joey Diovisalvi, the hyper-intense trainer who helped take Vijay Singh to number one.

Still, the key lesson might have been that during the toughest time of his life, he had the unconditional support of his partner Paulina Gretzky, her father Wayne and the rest of their large family. In early 2013, Johnson had begun dating the glamorous daughter of the greatest ice-hockey player of all time, and by that summer they were engaged. In the spring of 2014 they discovered Paulina was pregnant. It was only a few months later that Johnson took his leave.

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 youre finally not afraid to love back, thats a life-changing shift.

Sanctuary: Dustin Johnson with Paulina Gretzky and their baby son Tatum at Wayne Gretzkys home in California. Photograph: Ben Van Hook/Golf Magazine

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 Spieths putter on the practice green. (Another son, River, was born on the eve of this years US Open; Dustin and Paulina hope to wed this autumn, but first want to complete construction on a waterfront mansion in Jupiter, Florida.)

All the pieces were coming together for Johnson, but the final push came from a man nicknamed the Great One. I dont 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 Im some kind of guru to Dustin is overblown. He was a top-10 player long before I met him. But if Ive helped in any way its with the message that to be the best he has to pay the price. Ive encouraged him to set very high goals for himself. Tiger-like goals. So this year youve won three tournaments and a major. Next year make it five tournaments and two majors. Dont be afraid to be the best. Embrace it.

Which Johnson has, all of it: the interviews, photo shoots, autographs, the scrutiny and expectations. He doesnt want to be a guy who got to number one 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 than himself. You cant get this far by yourself, he says. Im 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 winning can Johnson do? That is suddenly golfs most tantalising question. Rory McIlroy is unquestionably the most towering talent of this generation, but there is a growing belief that Johnsons best stuff is of the same standard, and that, notwithstanding this current mini-swoon, Johnson has become a more consistent force.

Eyes on the prize: Dustin Johnson (right) with his brother and caddie Austin Johnson at the World Golf Championships, Austin Country Club, Texas, March 2017. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

You know the feeling when youre an average golfer, says PGA Tour winner James Hahn, and youre playing with a guy whos on pace to break the course record and every part of his game is on fire and you dont know whether or not to talk to him or just get out of his way? Thats 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 its going in. He looks like hes going to shoot the course record every time he tees it up. And not only does the golf look different, it 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 its every swing. Hes a machine.

Yet machines dont evolve, as Johnson has. He has always possessed cartoonish length off the tee, but the key to reaching the next level has been an emphasis on finesse. He used to favour a hard draw, which could turn into a crashing hook, which calls to mind Ben Hogans famous quote: A hook is like having a rattlesnake in your pocket. During practice rounds at the 2015 Tour Championship, Johnson was struggling to hit fairways. The draw wasnt working so I tried a fade, he says, in his typically guileless way. Harmon had long been trying to convince Johnson to play a fade, which, it must be noted, was the preferred shot shape of Jack Nicklaus.

It was a revelation. Johnsons misses were tighter, and he could let the club go with more freedom. He became so enamoured with the fade that from that tournament forward its pretty much all he has played. The next foundational moment came four months later at the Tour stop in Los Angeles. Johnsons intermediate wedge game had always been middling, an inconvenient truth given that he leaves himself the shortest clubs into many par 4s. On the range at Riviera Country Club, following the Wednesday pro-am, he borrowed a TrackMan and started dialing in his wedge distances. Johnson finished fourth that week and saw a sharp increase in the accuracy of his wedge play. He immediately bought his own TrackMan and developed a precise system: A half shot with my 60 [degree wedge] goes 85 yards. Ive got a three-quarter swing that goes 95 and a stock swing that 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. By the seasons end he would be fourth on tour in proximity to the hole from 50 to 125 yards (up from 53rd in 2015).

So why did it take him so long to make these improvements? Well, I mean, thats a tough question, Johnson says with a laugh. To put it politely, he is not the most intellectual of chaps. Yet he has made it to the top in his own unique way. I guess you have to make some mistakes, Johnson says, before you figure out all the answers.

Which is a nifty coda for the life and times of a singular talent. Johnson is certainly eager to reassert himself at this months Open Championship. Lets just hope that his rental home is single-story.

Alan Shipnuck is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His articles, podcasts and video features can be found at

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