The Evolution of Dustin Johnson: Inside the Masters champion’s steady ascent

Dustin Johnson capped a brilliant 2020 with his first Masters title.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Nine years ago, while piloting his boat down Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, Dustin Johnson was asked not about the destination but what even back then seemed like his destiny: winning a green jacket. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the Southern rock booming out of the boat’s many speakers: “It’s gonna happen, bro.”

Of course it was. Long before anyone had heard of Bryson DeChambeau, Johnson’s cartoonish length off the tee positioned him as a tantalizing agent of change. His career-long agent, David Winkle, still vividly recalls one of the first times he scouted Johnson at Coastal Carolina, where DJ was already the star of various outlandish stories, a kind of Paul Bunyan with a soul patch and thick pinch of chaw.

Winkle positioned himself behind the green of a shortish, dogleg par-4 where the longest hitters’ drives were expiring short of the putting surface. When it was Johnson’s turn, he took a mighty lash and many seconds later his ball fell from the heavens, pin high. As Johnson walked off the green Winkle complimented him on the shot, to which DJ replied, “Dude, it was a perfect length for my 3-wood.” Says Winkle, “I had a very clear thought at that moment: My god, just wait until this kid gets to Augusta.”

dustin johnson walker cup
Johnson, at the 2007 Walker Cup, has been turning heads since his amateur days. getty images

And yet anatomy is not destiny; no matter how extravagant Johnson’s physical gifts, the jacket remained beyond his grasp. He loved to party, at times running afoul of the PGA Tour’s watchful eyes. A series of spectacular Sunday crack-ups at the majors left many wondering about Johnson’s various unseen body parts: brain, heart, guts. Through it all Johnson sailed on, piling up Tour victories and remaining the game’s most down-home superstar — always polite, always kind, never saying a bad word about another soul.

But those close to Johnson were becoming impatient for him to fulfill his vast promise. Johnson’s swing coach Butch Harmon sounded the alarm in the early 2010s: “He has always relied on tremendous natural ability to carry him through. It’s taken him all the way to being a top-10 player. But every other guy in the top 10 outworks him.”

Dustin Johnson and Paulina Gretzky hug.
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Johnson’s journey to the green jacket was redirected in an unlikely way: he fell for Paulina Gretzky, the glamorous daughter of a hockey great. They began dating in 2013 and were engaged six months later. By January 2014, Paulina was pregnant. A few months later, Johnson took a six-month “leave of absence” to address “personal challenges.”

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 committed to dialing in his wedge game. He committed to a low-fun diet and began spending so much time in the gym Joey D says, “He looks like he should be one of the X-Men.”

Love became the defining thing in his life, and when you’re finally not afraid to love back, that’s a life-changing shift. Joey Diovisalvi, Johnson’s trainer

The new commitment to work fortified Johnson. “Golf is really mental,” he says. “Even if you think you have an edge on someone, that’s your edge right there.”

The immediate reward was winning the 2016 U.S. Open, when he overpowered one of golf’s brawniest courses, Oakmont. That victory featured some of the most macho ballstriking 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 A.J., 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.)

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Dustin’s caddie-brother, A.J., has served as a guiding light. getty images

“That whole week at Oakmont, I felt like we were just groovin’,” Johnson says. “We had a great game plan for the golf course, so it felt pretty easy. And we were executin’. When all that stuff happened on Sunday, we just stuck to our game plan.”

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,” Gretzky, 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.”

I’ve encouraged him to set very high goals for himself. Tiger-like goals. Wayne Gretzky

Johnson built on the Open victory by becoming the game’s most prolific winner, and has now spent a total of two full years at number one; he will soon overtake Rory McIlroy for the third most weeks at the summit since the ranking debuted in 1986, behind only Tiger Woods and Greg Norman. The last missing piece to cement Johnson’s legacy was more major championship victories.

His focus for 2020 has been sharpening his putting, and it showed on the game’s most terrifying greens: When Johnson opened this Masters with a bogey-less 65 to share the lead, you could feel an unstoppable tide rising. McIlroy, who continued to confound by shooting a 75, was dazzled by his playing partner’s demeanor. “See ball, hit ball, see putt, hole putt, go to the next. Yeah, he makes the same so simple, or makes it look so simple at times,” McIlroy said. “I think he’s got one of the best attitudes in the history of the game. I don’t know if I can compare him to anyone else, but the way he approaches the game is awesome.”

Johnson is playing at such a high standard that a two-under 70 for the second round felt like a wobble. But he grabbed this Masters by the throat on Saturday, with another bogey-free 65 that evoked some of the most monumental third rounds in tournament history, which propelled great champions to victory: Hogan’s 66 in ’53; Nicklaus’s 64 in 1965, which he has called maybe the finest round of his career; Seve’s 68 in ’80, the low score on a tough day; Tiger’s 65 in ’97, when he let the legend grow.

dustin johnson and paulina gretzky at 2020 masters
Johnson with fiancee Paulina Gretzky on Sunday afternoon. getty images

Johnson looked a little nervy early on Sunday but beginning on the 6th hole he produced nearly perfect golf, playing the final 13 holes in five under to roar home at 20 under, shattering Woods’s Masters scoring record on a rain-softened course. Johnson set a tournament record for fewest bogeys (four) and tied the record for most greens in regulation (60). The five-stroke victory was the sixth time since the start of 2017 that Johnson has won by at least that many strokes.

There used to be some debate on Tour about which player’s best golf is the best, period. That question is done and dusted. And, yes, this was an unorthodox, roar-free November Masters but talk of an asterisk is misguided — Johnson is the first player to win a green jacket just a few weeks after defeating Covid-19. (He handled the quarantine, in a small hotel room, like the Zen master that he is: “I was just laying around — kind of doing nothing.”)

The tears would eventually come, once Johnson donned the green jacket, but on the final green he was subdued in victory, as always; when his fist-pump reaches waist-high something big has happened. Maybe that’s because he has always known he would reach this destination. The journey was more eventful than he could have ever imagined, but at 36, Johnson has arrived, at last.

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Alan Shipnuck

GOLF senior writer Alan Shipnuck writes longform features and a monthly column for GOLF Magazine and has his own vertical on entitled “The Knockdown,” which is home to podcasts, video vignettes, event coverage and his popular weekly mailbag AskAlan. He is the author of five books on golf, including na­tional best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees and The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger). Shipnuck is very active on Twitter, with a following of 50,000.