Local golf fans have long understood the paradox of Dustin Johnson. In 2009, he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am by four shots, at the tender age of 24. A long-hitting, telegenic star was born. The next year he won it again, and four months later, the U.S. Open returned to Pebble Beach. Through 54 holes, Johnson had a 3-stroke lead, and it appeared the golf world had found its successor to Tiger Woods.
“He is a generational talent,” said Johnson’s swing coach, Butch Harmon.
But on that fateful Sunday, Johnson went out and shot a disastrous 82, his bid ending early, with a slapstick triple bogey on the second hole and then a lost ball on the third. Thus began an eventful decade in which Johnson’s numerous PGA Tour victories were overshadowed by spectacular crack-ups in the game’s most important tournaments, the major championships.
Now, at long last, Johnson has become the player we always expected. His victory at a historic 2020 Masters—conducted in November for the first time because of COVID-19—washed away many of the past disappointments and highlighted his remarkable evolution as both a player and person. When the 2021 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am arrives, Johnson will be not only the game’s most dominant force but also the most universally beloved superduperstar.
The Dustin Johnson who blew the 2010 U.S. Open was a noted partier and skirt chaser who coasted on his prodigious natural talent. Now he is a dedicated family man obsessed with maximizing his endless potential. How did Johnson reinvent himself? It began when he fell for Paulina Gretzky, the glamorous daughter of a hockey great. (Wayne Gretzky is now DJ’s annual partner at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.) They began dating in 2013 and were engaged by year’s end. By January 2014, Paulina was pregnant. A few months later, Johnson took a six-month “leave of absence” to address “personal challenges” that followed the revelations that he had failed multiple drug tests. One of the most influential members of his inner circle, trainer Joey Diovisalvi, saw significant personal growth during Johnson’s time away from the game.
“I think for a long time, Dustin had been struggling with the question: ‘Who loves me and believes in me, not as a golfer but as a person?'” Diovisalvi says. “In that period of reflection, he came to discover that Paulina and her family were his sanctuary. In the hardest of times, they had his back. Love became the defining thing in his life, and when you’re finally not afraid to love back, that’s a life-changing shift.”
As Johnson settled into a (mostly) contented domesticity—a son, Tatum, was quickly followed by another, River—he began to finally address the shortcomings in his game and approach to his profession. He bought a Trackman and at long last labored to dial in his wedge game. He committed to a low-fun diet and began spending so much time in the gym that Diovisalvi says, “He looks like he should be one of the X-Men.”
The immediate reward was winning the 2016 U.S. Open, when Johnson overpowered one of golf’s brawniest courses, Oakmont. That victory featured some of the most macho ball striking in the history of the national championship but was also a monument to Johnson’s mental toughness and course management, as he played the back nine with the specter of a penalty stroke looming, while USGA blazers dithered about a possible rules infraction. In interviews, Johnson often has a monotone and glazed look, leading some to question his acuity. But he is an ace at blackjack, sometimes playing five hands at a time, and something like a genius when it comes to always playing the correct golf shot.
“He’s smarter than you think,” Rory McIlroy says. “He’s switched on, more so than he lets on, more so than everyone in the media thinks. I’ll just put it that way.”
In the wake of the trying U.S. Open victory, Johnson gave much of the credit for his equanimity to his brother Austin Johnson, who had become his caddie three years earlier. They share the same charming goofiness and jock swagger. (Their 6-foot-4 maternal grandfather, Art Whisnant, is in the South Carolina Hall of Fame for his basketball exploits; as a senior in high school at Charis Prep, a North Carolina hoop factory, Austin averaged 16.8 points while shooting 56.4% on three-pointers and 92.3% from the free throw line.) Dustin’s and Austin’s father, Scott, was a high school stud who lettered in football, basketball, baseball and soccer before going into a career in golf as a teaching pro. (He was the boys’ first swing coach.) Dustin has had a complicated relationship with his dad since his parents’ acrimonious divorce, so Wayne Gretzky has become a welcome father figure.
“I don’t know golf,” the Great One, an 11-handicapper, said in late 2016, “but I know sports. There are great talents at every level. What separates the superstars is preparation and commitment. The notion that I’m some kind of guru to Dustin is overblown. He was a top-10 player long before I met him. But if I’ve helped in any way, it’s with the message that to be the best, he has to pay the price. I’ve encouraged him to set very high goals for himself. Tiger-like goals. So this year, you’ve won three tournaments and a major. Next year, make it five tournaments and two majors. Don’t be afraid to be the best. Embrace it.”
And so Johnson began his inexorable march to the green jacket, finally unleashing all his want and will upon Augusta National. With a score of -20, Johnson shattered Woods’ Masters scoring record on a rain-softened course, while setting a tournament record for fewest bogeys (four). The victory was the 24th of his career and the sixth time since the start of 2017 that Johnson has won by at least 5 strokes. At 36, he is playing at a level that only a handful of golfers have ever contemplated.
What’s next for this unassuming superstar? “Well,” Johnson says in his South Carolina drawl, “winning never gets old.”