Dustin Johnson poses for a photo.

Master of one: Who is Dustin Johnson? Not the guy you’ve been told he is

Dustin Johnson, photographed at Banyan Cay Resort & Golf, in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 27, 2021.

Christian Hafer

You can tell a lot about a man by what he names his yacht. Just as Greg Norman’s Aussie Rules reflected his brand of Down Under machismo, Tiger Woods’ Privacy speaks to a deeply seated personal need.

Dustin Johnson, who, after Woods and Norman, has spent more weeks at number one than any golfer, is no different. Nearly five years ago, when he purchased a 76-foot Viking Sportfish to celebrate his 2016 U.S. Open win, Johnson had Just Chillin’ painted on the vessel’s hull.

The moniker could double as his motto. On any given day, when he isn’t busy building on what is sure to be a Hall of Fame career, the reigning Masters champion finds chill time on the water near his Jupiter, Fla., home. Diving and spearfishing rate among his favorite pastimes, but he’s equally content to kick back on the deck.

“I would live out on that boat if I could,” Johnson says. It’s a midweek afternoon, and no such luck. Instead, Johnson is on terra firma, on a sun-splashed hotel patio in Santa Monica, just down the road from Riviera Country Club, where the Genesis Open will soon be underway. Fresh off a practice round, he has swapped his golf attire for sweatpants and a T-shirt. With his lanky build and five-day beard, he looks relaxed, though the conversation he’s engaged in with a notepad-clutching reporter is oceans removed from his idea of bliss.

To be at the pinnacle of Johnson’s trade means long hours on the range, early mornings in the gym and countless sessions of meet the press. Johnson loves the first two. He finds the third about as pleasant as a four-putt.

“I don’t really know how to explain it, but I’m just not all that into talking about myself,” he says. “Telling people about who you are or what you’ve done…”

He pauses, shakes his head. “It just sort of feels pompous to me.”

Friends and peers recognize Johnson’s reticence as an admirable trait, but in the public eye it has drawbacks. If you don’t control the narrative, someone else will seize it for you. And over the years, through headline-making heartache and controversial hubbub, the soft-spoken South Carolina native has never fought very hard for the reins.

Partly as a consequence, Johnson, who, aside from Woods, might be the game’s most scrutinized star, is also among its most misunderstood. Starting with his rookie season, in 2008, when he began amassing what are now near-folkloric numbers — 24 Tour wins, two major championships, six WGC titles, to tick off just a few — a different kind of lore shaped Johnson’s reputation among fans and media alike. His laid-back style was taken as a lack of passion, his inclination toward laconic answers construed as a lack of depth. There’s little doubt that in his first few years on Tour, Johnson coulda, shoulda put in more sweat equity; he partied harder than he worked on his wedges. But at 36, he has long since matured, both on and off the course. A six-month “leave of absence,” taken in 2014 to address “personal challenges,” was one of many steps in his rise to the summit.

Friends and family mean the world to Dustin. And he’s an emotional guy. Off the course, we see him let his guard down all the time.

Wayne Gretzky

“Nowadays, we’re used to players coming out and making a big splash in their early 20s,” says Claude Harmon III, Johnson’s swing coach. “Dustin did plenty right out of the gate, but when you look at how he’s developed, it’s been more of a throwback to the way guys used to do it. He’s reached his mid-30s, and you could say that he’s just starting to hit his peak.”

Harmon is part of an intimate inner circle, among the most close-knit on Tour. If the group seems like family, it’s because some members are, including Johnson’s younger brother-turned-caddie, Austin, and his partner, Paulina Gretzky, daughter of the hockey icon and mother to Johnson’s two young sons, Tatum, 6, and River, 3. The grounding influence of this entourage is hard to overstate, but there are limits. In 2016, when Johnson shed the label of Best Player to Never Win a Major, Wayne Gretzky-as-DJ’s-Guru became the easy story, which The Great One says is quite the stretch.

“When we get together, we mostly talk about life and the grandboys and the kids, not golf,” Gretzky says. “Friends and family mean the world to Dustin, and he’s an emotional guy. The fact that he’s not overly demonstrative on the course comes mostly from him having such respect for the other players and the game. Off the course, it’s different. We see him let his guard down all the time.”

After years spent out of public view, the vulnerable side of Johnson had a memorable coming-out at last November’s Masters, where a man of few words communicated more in actions than he ever could have in a speech. On a rain-sodden, extra-long-playing Augusta National, Johnson broke the tournament scoring record, and then, during a floodlit ceremony outside Butler Cabin, broke down in tears. It was a raw, revealing moment, and golf fans ate it up. That Woods, the 2019 Masters champion, was there to drape the green jacket on Johnson’s shoulders lent a touch of pass-the-torch symbolism to the proceedings.

Though Johnson would never say as much himself, there is now an aura of dominance about him unseen in the game since Tiger’s prime and a sense of self-belief that comes with knowing that your best golf is better than anybody else’s.

“He’s not going to go all Muhammad Ali and tell you he’s the greatest,” Austin says. “But he’s confident, for sure. He’d just rather let his clubs do the talking. And from where I’m sitting, his clubs have been talking loud and clear.”

*****

Johnson first trained that voice as a kid growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in Columbia, S.C., a little more than an hour’s drive from Magnolia Lane. Athleticism was in his bloodline — Johnson’s maternal grandfather, Art Whisnant, is a local basketball legend and a member of the South Carolina Hall of Fame — and the Johnson boys, who also have a younger sister, played all the major sports. Dustin, by his early teens, was all about golf, with his father, Scott, a local club pro, serving as his first instructor.

Johnson’s gifts were evident early. In seventh grade, he made the high school varsity golf team and mopped up on the local junior tournament circle. When he wasn’t playing, he was practicing, banging balls so late into the evening at Weed Hill Driving Range that it was often up to him to shut off the lights when he left.

Some things never get old, like DJ’s spectacularly long swing, already in evidence when he was a South Carolina middle-schooler.

Melissa Lyttle

In those years, Johnson’s nickname wasn’t DJ, it was Styles DJ, a sociable kid known for showing up at school in crisp, button-down shirts, his hair slicked back. “Always looking to impress the ladies,” Austin says.

Not that he always went to class. Wednesdays and Fridays meant morning “dogfights” at a nearby golf club, and Johnson sometimes skipped school to take part in those grown-up money matches. In casual rounds with Austin, Dustin would pretend that he had putts to win the Masters. Competing in the dogfights — for $200 pots, with a few gambling bucks in his pocket — posed a real-world test, which Johnson handled well enough to turn a profit.

Once a boy among men, Johnson became something of a man among boys in college, at Coastal Carolina University, where, as two-time first-team All-American, he played a power game that drew head shakes and chuckles.

“Dustin was obviously a big hitter and a good player, but I’d be lying if I said that I knew how good he was going to be,” says Allen Terrell, then the men’s golf coach at Coastal Carolina and now the director of instruction at the Dustin Johnson Golf School at TPC Myrtle Beach. “The main reason I put him on the team was pretty simple — I just wanted to give the kid a chance.”

As Johnson’s skills developed, he combined prodigious length with cool play under pressure and a knack for the dramatic. Some of his feats had the whiff of fable. In one regional event, Johnson jarred a mid-iron on a par 5 for double eagle and then aced a par 3 with his next swing. By graduation, Johnson was the second-ranked amateur in the world, behind Colt Knost. The sports agent David Winkle, who has represented Johnson since he turned pro in 2007, still marvels at the memory of a scouting mission where he watched Johnson drive a 320-yard par 4 that few in the field could sniff. Johnson used a 3-wood. Winkle, who played collegiately at the University of Texas, immediately rang his business partner and gushed: “If this kid doesn’t win the Masters someday, then I don’t know golf.”

*****

Many others who know golf are by now familiar with the winding road that Johnson took to proving Winkle right. A key twist came in 2013, when Johnson fell for Paulina Gretzky. Shortly after, he became a father and took a leave from the Tour to get his private life in order. During that break, Johnson was reminded of how much he loved the game and, with family around him, how much he had to play for. (“It was one of those you-don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-till-it’s-gone kind of deals,” he says.) He returned with a redoubled sense of purpose, ramping up his practice and his fitness. As he toned his abs, he tightened his wedges, the closest thing he had to a weakness. That dedication captured a competitive fire that friends and family say has always burned beneath the surface, masked by a languid gait and a mellow demeanor.

“People describe Dustin as a ‘freakish athlete,’ which he is, but they also think that means he’s just coasting on his natural talent,” says trainer Joey Diovisalvi, who works out with Johnson in Florida and travels with him to tournaments. “Fact is, he busts his a– harder than anyone I know.”

A self-described “creature of habit,” Johnson these days is at the gym by 5 a.m. He travels with a chef and abides by a low-fat, high-virtue diet. There are rituals and rhythms to his range sessions, and superstitions in his play: Johnson only marks his ball with quarters from the 1960s (“You want to shoot in the 60s, right?”), with Washington’s head pointed down his line.

Team DJ beamed after his Masters win. The posse included (clockwise from top left) Johnson’s brother and caddie, Austin; Janet Gretzky; trainer Joey Diovisalvi; coach Claude Harmon III; Paulina and son River; agent David Winkle; Johnson and son Tatum; Wayne Gretzky; and personal chef Michael Parks.

Courtesy Photo

Since 2010, Johnson has been the Tour’s most prolific winner, joining the elite company of Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only players to have notched at least one win in each of their first 14 seasons. But he has also suffered famously devastating slip ups — both literal and figurative — that would have shattered many lesser psyches. While Johnson’s equanimity in the face of those misfortunes — crushing losses at both the 2015 PGA Championship and U.S Open; a tumble down the steps just before a 2017 Masters that he would have entered as the favorite — were viewed by some onlookers as a sign of apathy, keener observers saw something else.

“Dustin has a rare ability to keep things positive and to only focus on things he can control,” Wayne Gretzky says. “A lot of athletes would pay a fortune to a sports psychologist to get to the place where he is.” Adds Claude Harmon III: “You hear about the importance of putting the bad shots behind you but how many people can actually do it? If you were going to genetically engineer a golfer with the ideal attitude, Dustin would pretty much be the result.”

As he powers through his 14th year on Tour, Johnson has emerged as one of the game’s elder statesmen and an understated superstar — qualities that command widespread respect. This was made plain last summer at the PGA Championship at Harding Park, when Brooks Koepka issued a not-so-subtle dig at Johnson’s career record in majors. Tellingly, Johnson’s peers, including Rory McIlroy, leaped quickly to his defense.

At the time, Johnson shrugged off Koepka’s comments. But they must have been maddening and motivating, right?

“Maybe a little bit of both,” Johnson concedes. “But mostly my reaction was, What is Brooks thinking when he says that kind of thing?

Scour the internet today and one thing you won’t find is footage of Johnson tossing a club, throwing a tantrum or uttering an ill word about anyone. It doesn’t exist. What you will encounter are snippets of a choked-up Johnson at Augusta, wiping his eyes and struggling for words while accepting the green jacket. The emotional scene capped an autumn week that was unusual for Augusta but emblematic of how Johnson has come to go about his business: walking softly and wielding a big stick, while backing up his brawn with brains.

Tiger Woods slips the green jacket on Dustin Johnson last November.

Getty images

Among the knocks against him in the past was that he could shrink a course to size but not plot his way around it. Over a pandemic-tangled 2020 season, Johnson proved this to be false, drawing on his full arsenal of skills by playing to positions, dialing in wedges and grinding, with Austin, over a punctilious putting routine. The strategizing helped produce three wins, a FedEx Cup title and the second Player of the Year nod of Johnson’s career. His performance at the Masters brought more of the same, to the point where even Austin had to tip his cap. Consider what transpired on the 13th hole on Saturday, when a well-positioned drive put Johnson in the fairway with his ball caked in mud. Though it was no more than a mid-iron to the green, Austin told his brother that he wasn’t comfortable going for it. Even the layup made him nervous given their uncertainty of how the ball might fly.

“Dustin just says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll clean it,’” Austin recalls. “And before I could ask how, he punches this ankle-high 6-iron up the fairway. The ball skips along so the ground gets rid of the mud. We go on to make birdie, and I’m looking at him like, Dude, that was genius!”

Johnson signed for a bogey-free 65 that day, setting a 54-hole Masters scoring record that gave him a four-shot lead heading into Sunday. On four prior occasions when he’d entered the final round of a major in front, Johnson had either stumbled or been surpassed. This felt different, even after a jittery start. With a birdie on the 6th, he gunned the jets, racing off to victory and a celebration that soon became a blur. Literally.

If fans were surprised by his tears, so was Johnson. “The last time I remember crying in public was never,” he says.

He has the whole shebang recorded: the entire Sunday broadcast, from opening tee shot to closing ceremony. But he hasn’t had the time to watch it yet. He’s barely had a chance to enjoy the green jacket and a title defense that is rushing up on him.

He’ll be one of the favorites, and should remain so for many Masters to come. Not that Johnson is looking to the future. He’s focused on the moment, the finest golfer in the world and a contented family man savoring the full flush of his prime.

“I’m not into setting specific targets or making predictions,” he says. “But I know if I stick with the process, the results will come.”

Still, there is one thing he’s willing to forecast. “When I retire,” he says, “I’m going to buy a bigger boat.”

Just don’t expect him to change the name.

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.