Ryder Cup 2021: Remembering the American super fan who 'took down' Team Europe
He answers “David Johnson, State Farm,” because that is his name and that is his employer, but that is not who he is, at least to the world, for superheroes are known by their aliases and remembered for their valor. On an autumn morning in Minnesota five years ago, to an American gallery looking for a sign of hope against their oppressors, Johnson transformed from insurance agent into Superman—or should we say “super fan”—by scoring the first unofficial point of the 2016 Ryder Cup.
“I wish I could blame it on a couple drinks,” Johnson says of his moment at Hazeltine National Golf Club. “But it was too early to be that crazy.”
Johnson, 36, is quick to clarify: He did have one beer before stepping outside the ropes and into the spotlight. But his story is not one written by liquid courage.
Johnson has humble origins from a small town in the Great Plains, calling Mayville, North Dakota (pop. 1,808) home. He is a golfer who plays once a week, although is quick to point out his game in very much of the amateur level. “I’m the prototypical scramble golfer,” Johnson says. “More of getting together with your buddies to have some beers. I don’t worry about the score. It’s just golf, right? You’re out there to have fun.”
Fun. That is what spurred Johnson, his father, his cousin and his best friend to Hazeltine that week for the biennial event. They arrived at 10 a.m. that Thursday for the match’s final practice round. After securing libations, the group made its way to the par-3 eighth hole, set up shop behind the green, and waited. “Waited” being the operative word. The sneaky thing about attending the Ryder Cup, especially Ryder Cup practice rounds, is there’s not much action to be seen, so Johnson and company kept themselves entertained with “USA!” chants until someone, anyone rolled through.
Thirty minutes later they got their wish in the foursome of Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Andy Sullivan. Johnson couldn’t believe his luck; his favorite player, McIlroy, was standing an arm’s length away.
“He had just won the Tour Championship,” Johnson says of McIlroy. “You watch and root for these guys on TV every week, you feel like you know them, and then to be right there next to them in real life … it sounds simple, but it’s just cool you know?”
Still, this is the Ryder Cup, where partisanship rules the day. McIlroy was a visitor, and Johnson was rooting for the home team. So as McIlroy’s teammates Stenson and Rose failed to convert a series of practice putts, Johnson couldn’t help himself.
“I said, ‘Come on, I could make that putt,’” Johnson recalls. “Real original, I know. Wasn’t being mean. In golf, everyone supports the players. Ryder Cup is different, but you’re not trying to be mean. Everyone was giving those guys a good ribbing.”
One problem: Johnson’s “I could make that” pierced through the cacophony of cat calls and caught the ear of Stenson. Suddenly the one known as “Iceman” was giving an icy glare in Johnson’s direction.
“He caught my eyes and I thought, ‘Ah crap,’ Johnson says. “I didn’t think I said anything over the line.”
Stenson offered a proposition: You think you can make it? Let’s see it, motioning Johnson to join him as the crowd howled in delight.
“I think half the fans were pumped to see one of their own mixing it up with the pros,” Johnson says. “And I think the other half thought they were about to see a grown man make a fool of himself.”
With his heart doing the rumba, Johnson did his best to stay in the moment, knowing very well it was just that, a moment. Never one accused of being an introvert, he proceeded to make a meal out of the invite, reading the putt from multiple angles and raising his hands to the heavens to get the crowd on his side. The players laughed, not quite sure what to make of this lad in a pullover and jeans that fit like a tent, with Rose throwing down a $100 bill at Johnson’s feet.
“I was just trying to enjoy it,” Johnson. “They did, too. And I dragged it out. I knew it. But I knew how special this was, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Even lost my train of thought for a second, because I asked Stenson for a read. He goes, ‘No no no, you said you could make it. Do it!’”
Johnson admits he’s not a good putter. Average on a good day, he says. As he stood over the ball, he didn’t like his chances of converting a putt that major champions could not make.
So call it serendipity, divine intervention, maybe a nod to the aforementioned beer serving as swing oil … Johnson made his stroke, and against a chorus of “GET IN THE HOLE,” watched his putt—one that rolled with all the grace and touch of a battering ram—fall. And as the ball went down the arms of Johnson, and damn near everyone around the green, went up.
“It was electric,” Johnson says. “I promise you, I thought I was going to miss terribly. But when it started going, it felt like everyone was willing it to go in. And everyone was so surprised that it did go in it was just a joyous explosion of sound.”
Johnson didn’t know what to do, simultaneously prancing around the green and firing his arms like pistons. He found McIlroy and hugged him. “Probably hugged Rory for too long, but he was cool with it,” Johnson says. “He and Stenson are looking at me and going, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”
Yes, it was just a practice round, a little side bet. Nothing official, and the players soon departed. In that same breath, the Europeans have possessed super-human powers in the past decade against American golfers, and the first person to draw blood at the 2016 Cup was not Jordan Spieth or Patrick Reed or Dustin Johnson but David Johnson. And though David does not have Patrick’s short game or Dustin’s power or Spieth’s grit, he can deliver you a great quote on your home and auto policy. Those admittedly ill-fitting jeans suddenly became a cape.
Walking off the green as a newfound conqueror, Johnson and his gang decided the celebration called for another beer. But Johnson made it just four steps before his phone started buzzing. Unbeknownst to him, the Golf Channel had aired his putt live, and it felt like everyone in his life was reaching out to let him know it. And back home in Maysville, someone let his wife know, too.
"The first person who reached her said, ‘Did you know what your husband just did?’ Not exactly the words a wife wants to hear," Johnson acknowledges.
Before he had the chance to respond, Johnson looked up and realized he was surrounded by Ryder Cup representatives, and in that second Johnson believed he was about to be escorted off property. Instead he was ushered to the driving range to give a TV interview.
And a radio interview. And another TV interview. And to talk to reporters. And Stephen Colbert wanted to fly him to New York to be on “The Late Show.” And …
“For the next three days, I didn’t get to watch any of the actual golf,” Johnson says. “I was giving interviews the entire time.”
The very man who set the tone for the Ryder Cup missed the Ryder Cup.
Johnson and his wife were eventually flown to New York City to appear on Colbert’s show. But his life went back to normal relatively quickly, his proverbial cape put away in the closet.
Johnson says he is recognized about twice a year and gets a delight that his putt has taken on a life of its own on social media. “The other day, someone on Twitter put a photo of the putt saying Steve Stricker should make me a captain’s pick,” Johnson says. “I love reading the comments, just because everyone seems to have as much fun with it as I did.”
Perhaps the moment has outlived its viralness because it’s more than a moment. After all, this has not been a banner year for fan and player interaction, and while the atmosphere at a Ryder Cup is unique in spirit, the behavior can get contentious, malicious, xenophobic. The exchange between Johnson and the players that day is a reminder that this event, at its core, is an exhibition and celebration of the game. It’s worth noting that in the photo capturing Johnson seconds after the putt dropped, European vice captain Thomas Bjorn can be seen in the background, his arm raised and a smile across his face. Like Johnson says, this is golf; it’s supposed to be fun.
“There’s a line, and unfortunately people cross it with the things they say or their intentions behind the things they say,” Johnson says. “This? It was banter. The Ryder Cup is us versus them, but we’re all golfers, yeah? We can have competition but treat each other with respect.”
Johnson will not be at the Ryder Cup this year, his application for tickets denied. However, he still has that $100 bill that Rose wagered, which is signed by the European foursome. Johnson says it is in a case kept in a lock box. He plans on taking it out before this year’s event to keep by his side.
“Hey, you never know,” Johnson says, more than willing to break the glass should it be needed for good luck. Figures. Johnson, after all, is a superhero. And like any good superhero, he is awaiting his signal.