April 6, 2009

Johnson's Latest Mulligan

Dustin Johnson will likely get another chance after his latest brush with the law. The question is what he does with it

After his win at Pebble Beach in February, Dustin Johnson found himself in the headlines for the wrong reasons last month.

After his win at Pebble Beach in February, Dustin Johnson found himself in the headlines for the wrong reasons last month.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Even the most careful examination of the Rules of Golf will yield no mention of the mulligan. The idea of a do-over, in fact, flies in the face of the principles of the game. The majestic tension of the sport is that, from a stationary start, a body must transition into an athletic movement that can produce a well-struck golf shot without the comfort of knowing an errantly executed ball may be replayed.

Yet the notion of a second chance has crept into recreational golf, even when a couple of quid is on the line, likely as a concession to the human frailties of those who play it. We all make mistakes. And Dustin Johnson, a 24-year-old second-year player whose two PGA Tour wins in five months attest to his talent, has played enough golf to know that when you get a mulligan you better put it in play.

In fact, perhaps Johnson, who is playing in his first Masters this week, needs to have a bumper sticker printed that reads: "Never waste a second chance." That way every time he gets into his car he will remember those words are especially true if you are getting a second chance for the second time, which is the situation in which he now finds himself.

Last month, Johnson was picked up on a drunken driving charge in South Carolina. He said all the right things about learning from his mistakes and being sorry for letting down family and friends. But eight years ago, at the age of 16, Johnson was similarly contrite when he escaped jail time after he was linked to the theft of a gun later used by another person to kill someone.

Certainly, an automobile driven by a person under the influence of alcohol can be just as deadly of a weapon as a gun. And while it is unlikely Johnson ever thought of it that way, perhaps it is time he does. Johnson was fortunate to avoid more severe penalties in the 2001 incident, and he was lucky his escapade in March did not result in injury -- or worse -- to himself or someone else.

No one in golf has had more mulligans that John Daly. The man has had a range basket full of second chances. So many, in fact, that those who say the providers of those opportunities are enablers of bad behavior deserve to be taken seriously.

It is almost certainly too late for Daly to save his competitive golf career -- he is so talented that five wins with two major championships has to be considered underachieving -- but we can still hope he will straighten out his life off the golf course.

The greatest contribution Daly can make to the game of golf is to straighten out his life and inspire others to avoid excess. Short of that, perhaps the best service he can perform is to be the poster boy for the kind of behavior others need to avoid. Let's hope Johnson is reading the writing on the wall.

Certainly, no one can lump Johnson into the same loose-cannon club that, among PGA Tour players, is inhabited almost exclusively by Daly. The tour has long done a brilliant job of using the image of its players as a key marketing tool, weaving the subtle and unspoken message to the corporate world: "Put your money with us. Our guys don't get arrested."

Not many of us were clear thinkers at the age of 16, or even at 24. Youth, as a wise man once said, is wasted on the young. Yet, precisely because Johnson is living his life on the very public stage of professional golf, he has not only the obligation to behave with a wisdom that exceeds his years, but he also the opportunity to turn those demands to his advantage.

It would be easy to say that two brushes with the law do not indicate a pattern, and there is merit to that notion. And those words especially carry weight when the incidents are so dissimilar. Yet, the common thread of the 2001 episode and the March run-in is poor judgment.

Dustin Johnson needs to consider how much is at stake. Last year, he won $1.7 million and already in 2009 has earned $1.6 million. If something should have happened that night he was driving drunk that resulted in a career ending injury, were else would he make that kind of money?

This, too, was also at stake when he got behind that wheel while impaired: What if he had caused harm to someone else? There is no price tag that can be placed on that kind of damage. Yes, Johnson put his own wellbeing and the image of the tour at stake, but more importantly he put the lives of others at risk -- and that is unconscionable.

Daly is halfway through a six-month suspension from the PGA Tour for behavior that hurt the tour's mage. All we can do is hope the punishment makes Daly reassess his behavior. While Dustin Johnson is certainly not John Daly, he has twice had to say: "Oops, sorry, won't happen again." Let's hope this time the message of those words are seared into his soul. A mulligan is wasted when you knock it out-of-bounds. And, in life unlike in golf, we never know when we are getting our last do-over.