PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Dustin Johnson was in a predicament, his ball nestled between two clumps of sawgrass on the steep slope to the right of the 14th fairway at TPC Sawgrass.
Covering the 196 yards to the green looked to be an improbable shot, especially since the swing would have to be close to perfect for the club to avoid getting caught in the thick bush. Johnson reached for an 8-iron, quickly settled over the shot, and within seconds the ball exploded off the pine straw and settled on the front of the green.
Ernie Els was watching from the fairway and paid the ultimate compliment – he shook his head and smiled.
“From that bush to hit it on the green … that’s ridiculous,” Els said weeks later, remembering the shot as if it happened the day before. “He reminds me of myself at that age. He’s very carefree, very loose. He’s a strong guy and I like his attitude. And obviously, he’s got some serious game.”
The trouble is getting anyone to notice.
Youth is all the rage on the PGA Tour going into the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. When Justin Rose won the Memorial, he became the 10th player in his 20s to win on the PGA Tour this year. The list includes Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who won at Quail Hollow two days before his 21st birthday, and 24-year-old Anthony Kim, who picked up his third PGA Tour victory in Houston.
Johnson struggles to make the conversation.
He is 25, but only turned pro three years ago, about the same time as McIlroy. The age difference can be explained by the four years Johnson spent at Coastal Carolina, an obscure school on the golf landscape that had never been to the NCAAs until it went three straight years after Johnson arrived.
He doesn’t have the colorful wardrobe of Rickie Fowler or Ryo Ishikawa. He doesn’t wear the belt buckles and bling of Kim.
But when he won the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for the second straight year – only five others have done that, including Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Sam Snead – Johnson became the first player since Tiger Woods to go straight from college and win in each of his first three years on the PGA Tour.
“I don’t lack any confidence, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “I slide under the radar a little bit, but everybody else knows I’m out here. It’s OK with me.”
He is an imposing figure at 6-foot-4, so athletic that when he returned from an afternoon jet skiing, he picked up a basketball and dunked from underneath the basket – bare feet, wearing a wet bathing suit.
Johnson possesses the kind of power that made Woods stop and watch him on the range at Sawgrass. The best measure of his length comes not from statistics (No. 3 in driving distance last year with an average of 308.3 yards), but a comment often heard from those with whom he plays: He hits it as far as he needs to.
He has been playing practice rounds with Phil Mickelson since making it through all three stages of Q-school in 2007. Mickelson still remembers the first time they hooked up at the Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe outside San Diego.
The story brought a smile – the first time Johnson took some cash off Mickelson.
“I couldn’t believe his speed. I couldn’t believe how far he hit the ball and how much game he has,” Mickelson said. “He plays without fear, and that’s a cool thing to watch.”
Mickelson saw a little of himself in Johnson during the second round of The Players Championship.
Johnson was right on the cut line with three holes to play when he drove left into a stand of pine trees on the par-5 16th. With water down the right side and wrapping around the green, and with a suspect lie, the prudent shot – maybe the only shot – seemed to be punching out to 100 yards. That’s what Johnson’s caddie, Bobby Brown, suggested.
“No, get out of the way,” Johnson replied. He tried to hook the ball through a 4-foot gap in the pines, take it out over the water and bring it back to the green. It didn’t make it all the way back and found the water.
Brown said to Phil Mickelson as they walked toward the green, “Any time you want to say something to your protege that there’s a time and place for everything, go ahead and let him know.”
Mickelson only laughed.
“If I remember, he ended up salvaging par and made a birdie on the 17th,” Mickelson said. “He’s not afraid to take on those shots.”
His recent success at Pebble alone figures to make him a contender at the U.S. Open. Johnson had a five-shot lead in 2009 and was declared the winner when the final round was washed out. This year, he was tied for the lead on the 18th tee, a daunting hole when birdie is a must, and fearlessly smashed a driver shot down the left side of the fairway to set up his victory.
“His raw talent is unbelievable, but he’s not polished yet,” said Butch Harmon, who began working with Johnson last month. “He’s got guts. He and Phil play a lot of practice rounds for a decent amount of wager, and he’s got no back-off. If he can get his head in the game a little more, he’s only going to get better.”
Johnson worked for everything he has. Fortune smiled on him, too.
His life could have gone any number of directions as a teenager, when he struggled with his parents’ divorce, stopped going to class and was suspended from the high school golf team.
Worse yet was the company he kept, including the menacing older brother of one of his friends. According to court documents, Steve Gillian intimidated Johnson into buying bullets for a stolen gun. A month later, Gillian was charged with murder after shooting a man multiple times in the head after an argument.
Because of the loose connection to the crime, Johnson had to pay restitution for the theft and be willing to testify against Gillian, who is serving life without parole. Johnson received a full pardon from second-degree burglary three weeks before his first win at Pebble.
Maybe it was best that he didn’t have the grades to get into a big school. He had Allen Terrell as his coach at Coastal Carolina, who taught him as much about discipline as golf. And even though Johnson recently hired Harmon to polish his game, he refers to Terrell as a “huge influence in my life.”
“I was in a place where I could sack it up and go down the right path, or be a (jerk) and go down the wrong road,” Johnson said. “I always wanted to go to college. I always wanted to play pro golf. It wasn’t a hard decision for me. Back then, I couldn’t see myself being here. I’m definitely fortunate to be where I’m at.”