Life At The Crossroads
Continued (page 2 of 2)
"Dustin and Austin both were pretty good kids, they really were," says Miller. "It wasn't like [Dustin] was a troublemaker. We couldn't leave this kid on the curb. You never know what could have turned out. If he'd been anywhere else, he'd be washing cars right now playing on the Wednesday circuit at local golf courses."
Terrell took a chance on Johnson. "Going to Coastal was one of the best decisions I ever made, getting out of Columbia," Johnson says. "Coach Terrell, he instilled all the things I needed to have, self-discipline and responsibility. All the things I was lacking. And I could be better at it. Everything's starting to come around."
There is something there worth building on. Of all the rules snafus of the past couple of years, who handled theirs with more dignity than Johnson did at Whistling Straits? Yet, he was named in Vijay Singh's lawsuit against the PGA Tour as one of the players whose record of any possible violations of the tour's Anti-Doping Policy was being sought by Singh's lawyers in discovery. Though Johnson had a DUI in South Carolina in 2009, the same year that he was pardoned by the state for his actions as a youth, he insists he's never been suspended by the tour. One can only suppose Singh's lawyers want to know if there was any reason he should have been. The tour's lawyers, on the other hand, have characterized it as a fishing expedition.
"Obviously, I'm getting older. Kind of settling down a little bit," Johnson says. And, golf is no stranger to, shall we say, self-indulgent conduct. While the exploits may not have been entirely the same back in Ray Floyd's day, the newly appointed Ryder Cup vice captain was known to enjoy the bachelor lifestyle in the era when golf and Hollywood strolled arm and arm.
"I was a young guy. I was enjoying the environment, if you will," says Floyd. That ended when he met and married Maria, his wife of nearly 40 years who passed away in 2012. Floyd has often repeated the story of his life-altering revelation. He and Maria were in a hotel room in Jacksonville. He had withdrawn from a tournament and was hell-bent for a racetrack in Miami. Throwing his clothes in a suitcase, he told Maria to pack. She refused. She told him he was still young, just 31, and if there was something else he wanted to do in life, well, he should make up his mind and do it. Otherwise, man up. "That was like hitting me beside the head with a bat," says Floyd. "From that day forward, I never gave it less than 100 percent. I've known players through my years that had the ability but they didn't have the support behind them. It's a very, very difficult career path. Nothing says that all of a sudden something happens, your abilities lessen, injury -- many things that can all of a sudden wake you up, and now it's too late. You didn't give it your best. I was blessed. I played from 20 to 30 just rambling around. Then from 30 forward, I got my act together."
Johnson has gotten close enough to get a glimpse of what it takes. Has he gotten wise enough?
He and Paulina are to be married in the fall, sometime after the Ryder Cup, probably in Los Angeles. Famous before she was born, will the 23-year-old model, veteran of the club scene, siren of the selfies, the deputy in "Girls, Guns and Gambling" and Bikini Girl Daisy in Adam Sandler's 2013 sequel to the movie "Grown Ups" be that kind of anchor in their lives? "It's probably the best thing that's ever happened to him," says Terrell, who traveled with the couple in China. "She's a great lady. She's tough as hell. It's what he needs."
Certainly, Johnson has been embraced by the Gretzky family and it by him. Even with a superstar father, an actress mother and a Maxim cover girl daughter (plus her four siblings, one of whom plays professional baseball), the Gretzkys may be the most normal nuclear family Johnson has ever known. During a career as the greatest goal scorer who ever laced up skates, Gretzky enjoyed the protection of his teammates. If you think quarterbacks are shielded in the NFL, pity the poor fool who took a run at The Great One. After having played together twice in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, it now seems more like it's Wayne who has Dustin's back, maybe less an enforcer than a reinforcer. And who better to offer advice on how to deal with everyone who wants a piece of an athlete of means than someone who was an idol to an entire nation?
"I tell him the simple thing my dad always said, 'You treat people the way they want to be treated,' " says Gretzky. "We're not always going to be perfect. We're not always going to say the right things, but you can be respectful. You don't want to disappoint people but, ultimately, it's hard to appease everyone. We've all gone through it as athletes. He's going to go through it. Someone asked me the other day, 'Do you talk to Dustin about winning?' Listen, he's won eight times. He's a great player; he's a great athlete. He's very dedicated to becoming one of the greatest golfers that ever played, and it's tough because there are so many great players. But, he practices hard, he prepares hard and when you get in that mode, that's all that you can ask for."
Johnson does have work to do. For someone who drives the ball so brilliantly, he fails to take advantage of his best weapon because of a sloppy wedge game and an inconsistent putter. Last season, his greens in regulation, averaging the stats from 75 to 125 yards, placed him somewhere in the range of 160th on tour. His strokes gained/putting was 117th. After deciding to skip the parties at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in favor of the one for Wayne's birthday, Johnson stopped in Las Vegas to see Butch Harmon. It was the first time they'd been together in months. "He's working hard on his golf swing," says Harmon now. "He says he's dedicating this year to working harder. He's got all the talent in the world. If he puts in the time, he will be fun to watch."
Despite a 73 in the final round that cost him a successful defense of his Hyundai Tournament of Champions title and a quick exit from the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Johnson has players looking over their shoulders. He mounted Sunday charges with a pair of 66s to finish T-2 at Pebble Beach and solo second in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera CC.
Talent and potential come with use-by dates stamped on them. And crossroads come with signs. W.H. Auden read one of them this way: "All we are not stares back at what we are." For good or for ill, for better or for worse.