In a gated community northwest of Los Angeles, at an out-of-the way table at Sherwood Country Club, Dustin Johnson arrives for his first interview since he disappeared from the PGA Tour under murky circumstances five months ago. He comes prepared. His longtime agent, David Winkle, sits on one side. A public relations consultant sits on the other. A list of talking points Johnson has written down on a white sheet of paper sits in front of him. They include family, simple life and dedication. Between spits of dip, he delivers his lines with conviction. “Over these past four or five months I’ve really grown up,” he says, “and I am starting to become the person I want my kids to look up to.”
Johnson, 30, is about to return from a leave that reminded everyone of the immaturity that’s undermined his development. He has won eight PGA Tour events and nearly $25 million, displaying boundless length off the tee, Houdini shotmaking and arguably the most pure talent this side of Tiger Woods. But Johnson has been defined as much by his failures as his victories: a meltdown while leading on Sunday at the 2010 U.S. Open; a penalty that cost him a spot in a playoff at the PGA Championship later that year; and a squandered chance at the ’11 British Open when he hit a ball out of bounds at the 14th hole on Sunday.
Johnson’s recent hiatus began days before a report from Golf.com last August that he had been suspended by the Tour for failing a third test for recreational drugs — two of which were for cocaine. Johnson and his p.r. team say he wasn’t suspended and are indignant that reports continue to circulate despite a denial from the Tour. Depending on when his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, gives birth to their son, Johnson will return at Torrey Pines on Feb. 5 or the following week at Pebble Beach. “I’ll tell you this unequivocally,” says Paulina’s dad, NHL legend Wayne. “It’s the first time I can see him say, ‘Gosh, I really miss it, and when I get back I want it to be something special.’”
Yet questions remain about the actual reason for Johnson’s absence, just as there were when he took a three-month break in 2012, which he said was because he tweaked his back while lifting a JetSki. His most recent exit also came less than two months before the Ryder Cup, and at fifth in the standings, he had all but locked up a spot on the U.S. team. Johnson says this respite was a choice to address “personal challenges.” He adds that he did not enter any kind of rehab, instead hiring a team of experts — a life coach and several clinicians among them — to help him better understand what drives him, how to handle stress and how to unlock his latent potential. “I did not have a problem,” he says when asked explicitly about cocaine. “It’s just something I’m not going to get into. I have issues. But that’s not the issue.”
A day in the new life of Dustin Johnson typically begins around 6:30, when he and Paulina head up the street from their rented townhouse to her parents’ house for breakfast. They bring their dogs, Charlie, a black Labradoodle, and Daisy, a goldendoodle, for the half-mile drive along Sherwood’s immaculately manicured course, which sits at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains in Thousand Oaks.
After some coffee and eggs Johnson works out with a trainer, hits the range and plays golf with a regular group of five to 10 friends that includes Wayne and his wife, Janet, who ride a cart reading “Mr. and Mrs. Sherwood” on the back. Dustin and Paulina return to her parents’ most nights for dinner. It’s a world away from the couple’s days as social-media superstars, their Instagram accounts filled with jet-setting adventures. Paulina, a model, is mostly known for racy pictures on Twitter and Instagram that often made their way to click-bait websites. These days she stays close to home and Dustin spends his free time running to the store to fulfill her pregnancy craving — celery. Lots of celery. Their evenings typically end with a heavy dose of State of Affairs, Homeland or Sons of Anarchy. “Really simple,” Johnson says, hitting that talking point. “That’s what I’ve been working on, really simplifying everything. And her being pregnant makes it that much more easy to simplify things.”
The simple question that will be answered when Johnson returns to the Tour will be whether, after mentoring from the Great One, he can become golf’s next great one. Johnson has been taking notes. How does Wayne act when fans approach him in a restaurant? (Graciously.) How does he handle the guys waiting at the private airport with 10 jerseys to sign? (He finds another exit.) How have he and Janet sustained a high-profile marriage for 26 years — and raised five kids — with little drama? (They work at it.) Gretzky laughs off a report that he sat Johnson down, scolded him and demanded he change his partying ways. He says anyone who knows him realizes that’s not his style. “People ask me now, ‘What do you do to replace hockey?’” Gretzky says. “I don’t. I can’t. And I tell Dustin, ‘You can’t replace golf or what you do and bring to the sport. Make sure you understand that, and don’t mess that up.’ ”
In October, Wayne told Dustin on the 1st tee at Sherwood, “You should shoot the course record today, let’s do this.” Gretzky was so confident he made Johnson putt out his four-footers early in the round, so the score would be official. By the back nine Johnson was playing so well the other members stopped making small talk, treating him like a pitcher in the dugout working on a no-hitter. He finished with a course-record 61, shot 63 the next day and came back with another 61 the day after that. Johnson shrugs off the run, saying, “I wish I was playing in a golf tournament.”
What has most impressed the Sherwood group is Johnson’s demeanor. He has befriended kids on the driving range, giving them full-blown lessons. (Many have no idea who he is.) He is engaging with the members. Johnson has been characterized in the media as being quiet and aloof, but Janet believes he finally may be finding himself. “Maybe he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin before,” she says. “Maybe he felt a little alone out there. He’d go off with certain people and groups, and you don’t understand if they’re really your friends. Now, there’s no mistaking. Paulina loves him to death. We love him and support him. We don’t judge him. No one is perfect. What is perfect is if you can do it the right way.
“Whether he made a few mistakes, that’s not my business. What the outcome is, that’s my business.”
Growing up in South Carolina, Dustin Johnson drove a red Honda Civic hatchback. It was a stick shift with no radio, so he kept a boom box in the back seat to blast Nelly. “Had to have some tunes,” he says with a smile. He didn’t know how to drive a stick, but his father, Scott, told him, “If you want to go somewhere, you’ll learn real quick.”
Johnson has done the same on the course, figuring things out as he goes along, stalling here and there. He was raised by divorced parents, bouncing between houses, asking Scott for things when his mother, Kandee, said no. “I knew how to get what I wanted,” he says. He wasn’t a great student at Dutch Fork High near Columbia, S.C., or at Coastal Carolina University. Instead, he took perverse pride in doing the minimum. “I could’ve made the time and got straight A’s,” he admits, “but I did just enough to make sure I was eligible to play golf.”
No one has ever questioned Johnson’s athleticism: He has an effortless swing, his broad jump would be among the top percentile of NBA players and he could run drills at the NFL combine alongside elite receiver prospects. “I wasn’t doing everything I could, and it’s totally a parallel,” he says, referring to his lackluster approach in the classroom. “I was succeeding, but not to the potential I could if I really want. That’s a big reason why I needed to sit back and take a look at everything in my life.”
Along the way he has had two significant legal issues. At 16, he was involved in the burglary of a handgun that was used in a murder. (He testified at trial, paid restitution for the burglary and was pardoned.) And in 2009 he was arrested for DUI. (The charge was dismissed, but he pleaded guilty to reckless driving.) The legal issues, the suspicious breaks from the Tour, the careless play on the golf course — after being penalized at the 2010 PGA for grounding his club in a bunker, he said he had neglected to read the local rules sheet — make skeptics question whether he can change.
Last fall Johnson started by getting his body right. He was carrying 220 pounds — “not a good 220” — on his 6’ 4″ frame, so he dropped 20 through daily workouts with his trainer and has since put on 13 pounds of muscle. In sessions with his life coach and clinicians, Johnson discovered that he didn’t handle stress and anxiety well. “My way of getting rid of it was drinking or partying,” he says. “Yeah, that might work for that day or the next week, but eventually everything keeps piling up.” Johnson has sought other releases, from skiing to fishing to free diving. He cites a few examples of his changed behavior, such as turning down shots at Paulina’s baby shower. “Before I would’ve been like, Yep, I’m in, and let’s do another one.” He drank a beer or two at the Rose Bowl, but the night didn’t spiral into a party; he admits the DJ of old would have turned those two into a dozen. He says he has gone months without vodka — his vice was Grey Goose and soda with a lime. He even ponied up $1,000 for a competition with Wayne and eight other Sherwood members to see who could go through January without drinking. So far, so good. “I don’t miss waking up with a hangover, and I didn’t drink very often,” Johnson says. “It was just when I did it was a little too much.”
Part of Johnson’s self-evaluation involved tightening his inner circle — Team Dustin, he calls it. He declines to say who was cut out, but he’s proud he has eliminated some of the clutter from his life. He gave his tricked-out 1976 Pontiac to his younger brother, Austin. He plans to store if not sell his black Aston Martin, which he paid nearly $300,000 for. His two Jet Skis and one of his boats are going up for sale.
As he sheds his material items, Johnson hopes he can rid himself of the reputation of being an underachiever who never fully dedicated himself to the game. Until he delivers a major title and stretches of dominant play, the talking points will remain just that — talk. “The mentality of being invincible is great when I’m playing golf,” he says. “But where I was struggling was when I wasn’t playing golf.”
So why should we believe that Johnson is finally ready to become one of the world’s truly elite golfers? He’s 30 now. He’s in love. He’s about to become a father. He has guidance from and the support of a hockey legend and his wife. The Grey Goose has been shelved. The biggest obstacle in Johnson’s quest to become the best golfer in the world remains a familiar foe — Johnson himself. “I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface,” he says. “And that was a really big part of what I’ve been doing, to help myself reach that potential.”
He has the talking points down. Now it’s time for his actions — on and off the course — to speak louder.
This article appeared in the Jan. 26, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Click here for instant access to this week’s issue.