SAN DIEGO – That unmistakable Dustin Johnson saunter is back.
The eight-time winner was happy to be back on the course Tuesday at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he warmed up for his first start since he took a leave of absence to deal with “personal challenges” at the end of July.
When he tees it up at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday at Torrey Pines’ South Course, Johnson will be six months and five days removed from his last start. Golf.com reported that Johnson was actually suspended six months by the PGA Tour because of a third failed drug test, but the 30-year-old has denied those allegations.
The whispers may follow him for months, but most important moving forward is how he performs and acts.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Johnson said that he’s recommitted himself to the gym and that he hasn’t touched vodka, his main vice, in months.
“Over these past four of five months I’ve really grown up,” he told the magazine, “and I’m starting to become the person I want my kids to look up to.”
As for his golf, it’s easy to forget that Johnson was in the midst of a career year before he departed. In 17 starts, he won once (WGC-HSBC Champions), finished runner-up twice and had five other top 10s, amassing more than $4.2 million in earnings.
Whether he’ll be able to continue that form this week at Torrey Pines remains to be seen.
His long game looked plenty sharp Tuesday, with high, booming drives and crisp iron play. On the 614-yard 13th, Johnson hit a massive drive and long iron to 4 feet. On the 230-yard 16th, his high draw settled 5 feet from the cup. And he had more than enough power to get home in two on the 570-yard 18th, even with the tees all the way back.
During a quiet practice round that was closed to the public, Johnson acknowledged tournament volunteers and seemed genuinely happy to scribble his name on flags, hats and balls.
“It’s been a little while,” he said after the round, “but I’m excited to be out here again.”
A return to Tour life isn’t the only adjustment for Johnson. He and fiancée Paulina Gretzky also became parents on Jan. 19, to son Tatum.
“It’s the best thing in the world,” he said of fatherhood. “I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be more excited about the future.”
Johnson made the three-hour drive Monday from Los Angeles, where he and Gretzky have rented a house near her parents. During his time away Johnson has stayed sharp with near-daily games with former NHL legend Wayne Gretzky.
“Now, being a father just puts things in perspective,” he said. “I love playing the game, but I’ve got things that are a lot more important now. It actually takes a bit more pressure off the golf. It’s just fun to be a part of his life.”
Johnson intends to jump right back into his regular Tour schedule. This is his first of five consecutive starts (Pebble, Riviera, Honda and Doral) before he takes a few weeks off.
“I imagine there might be a little bit of rust – it’s always hard to simulate tournament play when you’re at home practicing,” he said. “But I feel like I’m ready. I’m very pleased with how things are going.”