Sandlapper Society

Young, Gifted and Fearless

Despite personal missteps, golfer Dustin Johnson aims for the top.

by Bob Gillespie

 

It’s a rainy afternoon at the Tournament Players Club of Myrtle Beach, about 3,000 miles and 30 degrees removed from California’s Monterrey Peninsula.

In Dustin Johnson’s mind, though, the 18th tee at famed Pebble Beach Golf Links is as close as the grilled chicken salad lunch over which he now pauses. Two weeks removed from his victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the 25-year-old Myrtle Beach resident and Columbia native is recreating the shots that produced his third PGA Tour triumph, confirming his status as one of professional golf’s rising stars.

Pebble Beach’s par-5 18th, with trees right and the Pacific Ocean left, is one of golf’s most majestic— and intimidating— finishing holes. To hear Johnson’s account of that Sunday, though, is to understand why the word “fearless” seems always in the conversation about his game. “I’d been driving well all day, so I wasn’t worried about that,” he says between bites. “I hit a nice little draw off the two trees, a perfect draw. I knew I had to give myself a chance to make birdie, at least get a look.”

Johnson’s booming 288-yard drive, indeed, set up a second shot to the green. “Me and Bobby [Brown, his caddie] decided 3-iron was the right play,” he says. “I hit it a little thin in the [greenside] bunker, but I knew the shot wasn’t that difficult.” It was in “perfect position” for Johnson to blast his sand shot to three feet, setting up his birdie putt to beat David Duval and J.B. Holmes by a shot.

Those four shots— but especially the first— were worth $1.116 million, the latest big payday in Johnson’s career, which has produced nearly $6 million in earnings. “The tee shot he hit on 18 was All-world,” playing partner Paul Goydos told reporters that day. “He’s got no fear.”

Charleston businessman Joe Rice, Johnson’s Pro-Am partner each of the past three years, says he felt more pressure than his young friend. “But Dustin was calm and collected,” Rice says. “I was talking with Bobby going from No. 17 to the 18th tee, and he said, ‘Boss, we knew it would come down to 18, and we’re ready.’”

Brown, a veteran of the PGA Tour wars, later told Golf World magazine: “This kid, every time I think he’s going to get mad, he just looks at me and goes, ‘I’m all right. I’m all right’… He’s unbelievable, isn’t he?”

Since turning professional in late 2007, Johnson has been all that. By winning back-to-back Pebble Beach titles— last year, he led by four shots when the tournament was shortened to 54 holes due to heavy rains— he joined a select company of players including Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Mark O’Meara. He is the youngest of three PGA Tour players under 30 with at least three wins, joining Australia’s Adam Scott (29) and American Sean O’Hair (27).

Perhaps his most impressive statistic: Only two players have gone directly from college to the PGA Tour then won in each of their first three seasons. Johnson is the second. The first: Tiger Woods.

“That’s a nice name to be talked about with,” he says with a grin.

6-foot-4 with a lean, but muscular frame, Johnson is the prototype for the modern professional game. He bombs his drives more than 300 yards on average— another 20-something star, Anthony Kim, said Johnson is “amazing the distance he hits it”— but also has the precise short game and putting to score well. At the AT&T Pro-Am, he shot two rounds of 64. “Personally, I’m right where I want to be,” Johnson says. “I’ve still got areas I can improve, wedges and putting, but everything else I feel like is getting better, every part of my game.”

Johnson’s Pebble Beach wins bookended a year of success— but also one marred by what he called “an error in judgment.” The week before his first Masters appearance, he was arrested in Surfside Beach for driving under the influence, and spent several days acknowledging his mistake and apologizing. That incident revived stories of how, in 2001 at age 16, he and other teens took part in break-in robberies in Columbia, including one that later led to a murder. Johnson has maintained he and others were coerced by an older teen who was convicted of the killing; in early 2009 Johnson received a pardon from the state of South Carolina for his plea of second-degree burglary.

“Yeah, it was a mistake I made,” he says of the DUI. “I regret it; it hurt a lot of people. But it was something I learned from and it’s not ever going to happen again. That’s all I can do.”

David Winkle, Johnson’s agent with Hambric Sports Management, said at the time of the DUI arrest, “I never met a 24-year-old who wasn’t a work in progress. He’s a good young man with a great heart. He’ll get through this, and be smarter and stronger and tougher on the other side.”

Allen Terrell, Johnson’s coach at Coastal Carolina University and his instructor/mentor now, believes his student is maturing. Recently he decided not to compete in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. “He said, ‘That’s like going to Vegas; it’s not a good city for me.’ It’s not trying to be perfect, but admitting what your Kryptonite is, avoiding certain environments.”

Too, Johnson has donated some $30,000 to help build a golf training facility for Coastal Carolina and recently created the Dustin Johnson Foundation to help disadvantaged youth through golf. “I was very fortunate growing up that I had someone to help me,” he explained, “and I want to give back to kids in the area.”

Rice likes what he sees. “He’s a good young kid with a strong future,” he says. “I think his head is on straight now, and he’s going to make South Carolina proud of him.”

Longtime Irmo golf instructor Jimmy Koosa has a theory about Johnson’s fearlessness on the golf course. “If you’d been through what he has in life, you wouldn’t fear any golf shot, either.”

He remembers watching 9-year-old Dustin follow his golf-pro father, Scott, to Koosa’s Weed Hill Driving Range. “He periodically would ask for help, but for the most part, Dustin was self-taught,” said Koosa, whom Johnson has credited— along with instructor Kevin Britt — with helping forge his game. “He watched his daddy swing and invented his own golf swing,” one that remains largely unchanged today.

Always tall for his age, Johnson as a young teen fell in with an older crowd, drinking and skipping classes. His parents divorced in the late 1990s, and “that hurt him a lot,” Koosa said. With a golf game far beyond his years, Johnson cut school to play money matches with adults. Though immensely talented, he was suspended from his high school golf team. “It wasn’t my grades,” Johnson said, “but I had trouble attending school.”

Though he helped lead Dutch Fork High School to a state championship as a senior, his academics and attendance records scared off most college golf coaches. That’s when Terrell came into his life. The coach convinced his university president to take a chance on Johnson, then Terrell drove his young star hard. The tough-love approach worked: Johnson became a two-time, first-team All-American while leading the Chanticleers to NCAA Championship appearances. “Each year, he develops more ownership of his game,” says Terrell, lead member of Johnson’s team. “With that, he knows why he misses shots in certain directions and can self-correct. That keeps him from getting into a slump.”

As a rookie in 2008, Johnson started hot, then missed seven cuts in a nine-hole stretch before rebounding for his first win at the Turning Stone Resort Championship in Vernon, New York. Last year, he followed up his Pebble Beach victory with four more top-10 finishes, including a tie for 10th at the PGA Championship, and he made 20 of 25 cuts while earning nearly $3 million.

So far in 2010, he’s won once and finished third at the Northern Trust Open, where only a third-round 74 kept him from perhaps another win. “I’m starting to compete in a lot more tournaments,” Johnson said. “I’m putting myself near the top a bunch.”

So much so that he and Terrell are re-evaluating goals for 2010 because “a lot of stuff we wanted to do, I’ve already done,” Johnson said. His ultimate target this year is to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team and finish ranked in the World Golf Ranking’s top 25; following Pebble Beach, he was second on the Ryder Cup points list and 26th in the world.

When he’s not on the PGA Tour trail, Johnson enjoys relaxing at the five-bedroom home he purchased in 2009 with longtime girlfriend Amanda Caulder and their Old English sheepdog, Max. With a swimming pool, pool table and a view of the Intracoastal Waterway— Johnson also enjoys spending time on the water— he’s able to kick back and energize himself. The house, while not “ritzy,” is large enough to entertain and accommodate family, especially his sister, her children and his younger brother, Austin, a basketball player at Charleston Southern.

He’s also a short drive from TPC Myrtle Beach, where he practices in the performance facility he helped pay for. There’s golf-specific workout equipment on hand, and with the problems inherent to his 6-foot-4 frame, Johnson spends time working on core strength and balance.

With his three wins, Johnson has begun to think about winning one or more of golf’s four major championships, notably this year’s U.S. Open, which will be played at Pebble Beach in June. Win a major and suddenly those Tiger Woods comparisons get interesting. Johnson, as did other players, welcomed Woods’ return to the PGA Tour, only in his case because he wants to take on the world’s No. 1 player. “I’d like to think I’m going to challenge him. I’ve still got a lot of room to grow; I won’t say this year or next year, but one day I will.”

With ambitions like that, it’s no wonder that 18th-hole tee shot at Pebble Beach created no qualms. “He’s not scared of anything,” Terrell said. “He doesn’t mind driving fast; he’d jump out of a plane if he had that option; he’ll get on the scariest roller-coaster ride. That’s why he is so good a player.”

And why his future— despite missteps in the past or perhaps because of them— is so bright.

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Bob Gillespie is a former senior sports writer for The State newspaper. He lives in Columbia.

This article is sponsored by Coastal Carolina University.

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