IN DUSTIN’S DE­FENCE

Golf Australia - - NEWS -

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 oŸcials 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.

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