Zack Byrd remembers the first time he met Dustin Johnson. It was his senior year of high school and Johnson was already a freshman on the Coastal Carolina team.
“I didn’t know anything about him,” Byrd says of seeing him play in a tournament at Country Club of South Carolina. “I watched him hit a golf ball and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’”
In between admiring his prodigious blasts off the tee, they started talking.
“He didn’t know me,” recalls Byrd. “We just struck up a conversation. I was like, he’s a nice guy. Took the time to talk to me and said he’s looking forward to playing with me.”
They spent the next three seasons as not only teammates, but roommates on the road. Over the years, they’ve grown apart. Byrd, who has Web.com status and also plays mini-tours, hasn’t seen him since they both competed in the 2011 U.S. Open.
After hearing Johnson’s latest news that he is taking an indefinite leave of absence for what his management team termed “personal struggles,” the former roommate painted a picture of a supremely talented player who showed few signs of any private transgressions back in those days.
“Everybody that knows Dustin knows he likes to have fun,” Byrd says, “but it never affected his golf. We played for pretty tough coach [Allen Terrell]. We had 6 a.m. workouts three days a week, long practices, we were out there grinding. He never showed up late, he never slept through anything. Never had any issues.
“He was just Dustin. Nothing bothered him. He never acted out, never caused any problems on the team.”
Just because they’re no longer as close as they were in college doesn’t mean that this recent news isn’t weighing heavily on Byrd’s mind.
“My main concern is whatever his issue is. I know how much talent he has. I lived it for three years and got to see it. Whatever all this is, I hope that he gets it straight, because the personal issues that he’s had are keeping him from being the best player in the world.”
He’s dead serious about that last part.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that if he really wants to be, he could be the No. 1 player in the world,” Byrd continues. “He’s so freakishly talented. He could be a world-beater. He can win multiple majors, a bunch, and I think everybody knows that.”
He also maintains that while others on the team had to work harder at certain things, everything came easier for Johnson.
Maybe too easy.
“If we were struggling with our game, he would always try to help us,” he remembers. “But when you’re freakishly talented, you look at golf differently. It was so simple to him. That’s the way he treated everybody on the team. If you were hitting it left, he’d say, ‘Quit hitting it left; aim right.’ Golf was so easy to him that he didn’t understand it actually is a tough game.”
That concept stretched behind golf, too.
“He could have played basketball in the NBA or wide receiver in the NFL,” contests Byrd. “His hands are the size of any wide receiver in the NFL; he can jump out of the gym. We played a lot of sports together. The kid is unbelievable at everything.”
While he admits he doesn’t keep up with too many of his old teammates, Byrd says those he’s spoken with this week have all offered a similar sentiment.
They’re worried about Johnson.
“It’s all pretty much the same. Everybody wants to know what’s going on. Everyone wants to know that everything is alright.”
For his part, Byrd has been thinking about his old roommate a lot over the past few days.
Even though they’ve grown apart, he’s still pulling for the guy who struck up an easy conversation back when he was still a high school kid, the one whom he believes has the talent to become the world’s best player.
“Whatever it is that’s going on,” he says, “when it’s over and he’s back to playing again, I just hope his full potential comes out. I hope he comes back a champion, like he said in his statement. I believe he will.”