Life At The Crossroads
Is this the year Dustin Johnson, who'll turn 30 this summer and be married in the fall, grows into his immense talent and wins a major?
It was early in the morning, though the time doesn't really matter, and the gate at Dustin Johnson's house wouldn't obey the code. Carrying a cup and dressed in sweat pants, he walked down the driveway to trip an electronic sensor -- the one that usually lets people out instead of letting them in -- with a motion of his right leg as nonchalant as dragging his toes through hot water to test the temperature. The right option can open doors.
The house is in Jupiter, Fla. If the British Army was ever trapped in the Palm Beaches the way it was at Dunkirk, the professional golfers along the banks of the Loxahatchee River would have enough skiffs and speedboats among them to ferry a couple of divisions across the Jupiter Inlet all by themselves. Johnson has a dock with a 36-foot Yellowfin and a 243cc Everglades, both suspended out of the water by hoists, at least until after his game with Michael Jordan, the local touring pros' personal high-yield money market fund. There's a beanbag toss in the backyard with the Ryder Cup logo for a target. Johnson has two dogs, Daisy the Goldendoodle and Charlie the Labradoodle, though in all honesty, Charlie got seriously shorted in the doodle department. The living room furniture is covered with beach towels because they have the run of the joint.
The tour of the house is matter of fact. There are a bunch of bedrooms. Paulina Gretzky, Dustin's fiancée, is in one of them. She doesn't come out. His brother and caddie, Austin, who has a business degree from the College of Charleston and goes by the initials A.J., does. He stops in the kitchen on his way to the gym. He trains more than D.J. but shames his older brother into joining him more and more. There's a pool table over the multi-car garage and an Aston Martin in it, parked near a set of free weights. Neither the car nor the weights look like they get out much. There's a plush theater room and a case with some crystal trophies and an office with the scorecards from several of Johnson's eight tour victories on the wall. One supposes the pool table sees more action than the desk. A magnum of wine just arrived from Chile. Dustin begins to open the package, but it's wrapped so securely you'd have to have close-combat training to get into the thing, so he leaves it for later. There's a baseball on his desk in a cup. It's scuffed on one side. He used it the week of the U.S. Open at Olympic Club when he threw out the first pitch for the San Francisco Giants, but it was Matt Cain who threw the perfect game that night. In the driveway there's a big truck with big wheels and a '67 black Pontiac parked off to the side protected by a car cover. He bought it from the guy who built his house in Myrtle Beach, S.C., before he moved to Florida. He says he had the whole thing reupholstered. Sometimes in life the upgrades are under wraps.
In between throwing a super-sized tennis ball to the indefatigable Charlie, we talk. He doesn't say much. The gate seldom opens all the way. Someone's trapping and killing dolphins on CNN on the big screen. Johnson stops everything to watch. The cruelty makes him angry. Does he ever imagine how lucky he is to have traveled the path he has traveled to arrive in such a grand house down by the river? "All the time," he says.
If the question is who the best athlete on the PGA Tour is, Johnson's name is the answer you almost always get. But, even at 6-foot-4 and 190 with the oily gait of a jungle cat, when the object is to put a ball that's 1.68 inches in diameter in a hole in the ground that's 4.25 inches across, your vertical leap is pretty much irrelevant. His talent is not. Given their customary Tuesday money games, Phil Mickelson and, by extension, his caddie Jim Mackay, have played about as much golf as anyone with Johnson. Mackay has been effusive in his praise, placing Johnson very nearly in the category of a Tiger Woods or a Mickelson. Phil is a big fan of big power, some would argue so much so it's worked to his detriment from time to time. "He's an incredible driver of the golf ball," says Mickelson. "Not only is he extremely long but, for his length, he has incredible accuracy. I think that's how you've got to win tournaments."
Johnson already has a wraparound-able victory this season in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai last November, where he went head-to-heads in the last round against Europe's last two Ryder Cup heroes, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell. He says it's his most meaningful victory so far, mostly because of the guys he had to beat. Johnson doesn't devalue his competition. Quite the opposite. He has had his flirtations with the majors -- the penalty for grounding his club that kept him out of the playoff at Whistling Straits in the 2010 PGA Championship; the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach two months earlier when he spit the bit, and a three-shot lead on the opening holes Sunday while McDowell snatched away the trophy; an out-of-bounds second on the 14th at Royal St. George's just as he was closing in on Darren Clarke in the 2011 British Open. If you're not Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, these are the close calls that crystallize the grit of success. Tom Watson learned from his. Bobby Jones did too. Mickelson went through plenty of it before he achieved liftoff in the 2004 Masters at age 33. "I know what it takes to get there," says Johnson. "Anytime you're playing a major, the last four or five holes, it's not going to be easy. It's never a guarantee. It's never easy."
Johnson, who will turn 30 in June, has arrived at a crossroads, both personal and professional. This is not the first time. In his middle teens, it would have been fair to characterize him, at the very least, as wayward, if not at risk. He was involved in minor crimes that escalated out of control when a young adult intimidated Johnson and other young friends into committing bad acts. That person, Steven Gillian, is in a psychiatric prison in South Carolina serving a life sentence for murder. There is no equivalence between the crime he committed and the mistakes Johnson made, nor should anyone have to be reminded endlessly of the ill-advised things one did at 16. It's enough that their universes touched, even briefly, and Johnson got out.
"It could have gone a lot of different ways," says Johnson. "I had some help from some good people and ended up picking the right path."
The good people included one of his coaches at Dutch Fork High School outside of Columbia, S.C., Chris Miller, who is now the managing director of the South Carolina Junior GA, and his coach at Coastal Carolina, Allen Terrell, who has left coaching but partners with Johnson in a pair of golf schools, one in Myrtle Beach and one in Florida. It was Miller who called Terrell asking him to consider Johnson when no other college would touch him because of his juvenile record.