IN DUSTIN’S DEFENCE
A decade of trials and tribulations culminated in Dustin Johnson winning the 2016 United States Open, but can he go back-to-back? Michael Jones reports.
Alot can change in three years. Dustin Johnson looked destined to a life full of sex, drugs and rocky rolls for a while there. Anyone following his career throughout the 2014 season could see how talented the athletic American was. It was clear as day. But he had severe problems between his ears and on the greens.
The then 30-year-old ended the 2014 season ranked 82nd on Tour for strokes gained putting, and was predicted to become ‘the next Tiger Woods’ for all the wrong reasons. A report was released in August of that year claiming Johnson had failed three drug tests in five years, including two for cocaine, and had slept with the wife of at least one fellow Tour player.
A six-month hiatus from golf ensued. And, although he denies the PGA Tour suspended him – he cited “personal challenges” – a sixmonth ban happens to be the penalty a player receives for recreational drug use. “I did have a problem … I have issues, but that’s not the issue,” Johnson stated. This followed an 11-week absence from the Tour in 2012 after he claimed he’d injured his back lifting a jet ski, as well as a DUI in South Carolina in 2009.
So how, in such little time, has Johnson transformed himself from someone tormented by temptation, to a major champion who demands respect from players and golf enthusiasts alike? And how, injuries aside, has he rebounded from scandals in a way not even Tiger Woods could manage?
It won’t come as news to many, but Johnson’s fiancée – Paulina – is the daughter of Canadian ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. And it is his relationship with the Gretzky family that has seemingly catapulted him to where he is today.
During Johnson’s 2014 layo, it’s understood that ‘The Great One’ threatened to call o his daughter’s wedding if the troubled golfer didn’t make significant changes to his lifestyle. Since then, Johnson has become a father, improved his mental and short games significantly, and shaken the tag of being a perennial nearly man at golf’s major tournaments. All of which was on display on Father’s Day last year when he won the US Open and overcame haunting memories of years past.
In 2010, he entered the final round at Pebble Beach with a three-stroke lead but shot a disastrous 81 to slip to 8th. And, in 2015, he three-putted from 12 feet on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay to hand Jordan Spieth his second major.
“You know, I was there for the final round in 2015,” Gretzky recalls. “I don’t know any other athlete that could overcome what he did … I‘ve been lucky enough to see some of the world’s great sportsmen like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, and I am not even sure they could muster that amount of mental strength.”
So it was somewhat fitting that Johnson’s breakthrough into the major winner’s circle came with its own controversy. Rules ocials advised him on the 12th hole he could be penalised for causing his ball to move during a practice stroke on the 5th green. And, although he was understandably fazed, Johnson did what had previously seemed impossible and held on to win, despite the eventual one-shot penalty.
“He was very happy and proud,” Johnson said of Gretzky. “Coming from him (that) was pretty cool. He was telling me how it was one of the greatest things he’s ever seen watching that … How it all unfolded and everything, and to see me get it done. So coming from him, I thought that was really cool. It means a lot because he’s seen a lot of good things.”
Large portions of Johnson’s newfound mental resilience must surely then originate from the family ties established during that troublesome period in 2014. Having the
I’VE HAD A LOT MORE TIME OFF THAN I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO HAVE HAD, BUT I STILL FEEL LIKE I’M SWINGING REALLY WELL.
Gretzkys in his corner, and only a few minutes from his house, appears to have provided Johnson with the extra support he needs to steer clear of those old vices.
“My way of getting rid of (stress) was drinking or partying. Yeah, that might work for that day or the next week, but eventually things keep piling up,” he said in 2015 after his return to golf.
Now 32, Johnson has reached the pinnacle of the game. He is the World’s No.1 ranked player with 15 PGA Tour victories – seven of which have come since that tumultuous 2014. He leads the FedExCup and, perhaps most importantly, he’s travelling to Wisconsin as the defending champion of the US Open Championship.
The monstrous Erin Hills will provide Johnson with a spectacular stage as he enters his first major as the game’s premier player, having missed The Masters with that freak back injury sustained slipping down some stairs.
“I was on a good roll, playing the best golf of my career leading into Augusta,” he said recently. “I’ve had a lot more time o than I would have liked to have had, but I still feel like I’m swinging really well.”
So well, in fact, he claimed to be playing even
I’VE TOLD DUSTIN HE NEEDS TO BE MORE LIKE TIGER ... PART OF WHAT MADE TIGER WAS THAT HE WAS RELENTLESS. – WAYNE GRETZKY
better than before his six-week stint on the sidelines. “I was hitting the ball better today than I was when I injured myself, so that was a lot of fun,” he told reporters during his recovery. That’s a scary thought, considering he looked unbeatable prior to his injury and had won three consecutive tournaments.
Johnson has improved considerably with the flat stick over the past few seasons, and is now ranked 27th on Tour for strokes gained putting. He’s also hitting the most greens in regulation for the season – averaging 75 percent per round – and is leading the Tour for strokes gained tee-to-green. All of which points to him emulating Curtis Strange (1989) and Ben Hogan (1951) as the third back-to-back US Open champion since World War II.
Finally, it seems, Johnson has harnessed his incredible talent and combined it with a winning attitude … and you don’t need to look far to find its source.
“I’ve told Dustin he has to be more like Tiger,” Gretzky said. “I don’t mean he has to be Tiger, you only get a few athletes like that a century. But part of what made Tiger was that he was relentlessness … I want him to see that only he can put limits on himself.”
Johnson fronts the media after withdrawing from the Masters having sustained a back injury.
Johnson’s putting has improved significantly during the past 18 months.