AKRON, Ohio – When one caddie here at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational received news of Dustin Johnson’s purported self-imposed leave of absence for the remainder of the PGA Tour season, he crowed, “What, did he hurt himself lifting another Jet Ski?”
That response was a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to Johnson missing three months of the 2012 season, which he explained away at the time as a back injury after that theoretical dockside incident.
It underscores a bigger relative story.
Amongst golf’s inner circle, Johnson’s transgressions are hardly secretive.
Now those outside of that circle are learning this, too.
A report from Golf.com on Friday cited an unnamed source with the news that Johnson’s latest leave of absence is not self-imposed, but a six-month suspension from the PGA Tour after a positive test for cocaine – the third positive drug test he’s sustained since turning professional.
According to the report, Johnson’s first strike occurred in 2009, when he wasn’t penalized with a suspension; his second in 2012, covered up by the Jet Ski tale; and a third that came to fruition this week, ostensibly keeping him out of action until late-January of next year.
Hours after it was released, the PGA Tour issued a statement denying the initial report. “This is to clarify,” it read, “that Mr. Johnson has taken a voluntary leave of absence and is not under a suspension from the PGA Tour.”
Suspension or not, it’s clear that he is undergoing “personal struggles,” as his management team termed it in a statement.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Johnson has denied all previous violations. When I asked him in December if he’d ever been punished or reprimanded by the PGA Tour, he said flatly, “No.”
The latest news may have been nothing more than an inevitability, as Johnson’s timeline of personal behavior pointed toward a downward spiral since his Myrtle Beach, S.C., formative years.
When he was 16, according to a Golf.com report from 2011, Johnson was coerced by a friend’s older brother into buying bullets for a gun that had been stolen in a robbery. That man later used it in a murder and while Johnson was pardoned, the incident still left an imprint.
“I sat down with myself afterward, looked in the mirror and realized, ‘This is not who I am, not what I want to be,’” he told the website. “I wanted to go to college. I wanted to play golf. It was an easy decision, getting back on the right path. I didn't want to throw all this good stuff away.”
In 2009, his second full season on the PGA Tour, Johnson was arrested for driving under the influence. A dashboard video from the arresting officer’s patrol car shows Johnson unable to walk a straight line or listen to the officer’s instructions.
Each of these incidents helps paint a picture of a profoundly talented young golfer who has clearly led a troubled past.
In fact, it can be argued that the only thing more surprising than Johnson’s checkered history is that throughout all of it he has remained one of the PGA Tour’s brightest young stars, winning at least one event in every season since becoming a full-time member in 2008.
Other recent examples show that Johnson is golf’s answer to Teflon.
At last year’s season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, he was followed around by social media starlet and notorious socialite Paulina Gretzky, daughter of former hockey star Wayne Gretzky. Proving the buzz surrounding their relationship wasn’t a distraction, he denied even knowing her while going on to win the tournament.
Later in the year, Johnson fired longtime caddie Bobby Brown, replacing him with his brother, Austin, who had limited previous experience caddying at the professional level. In his second event on the bag, Johnson prevailed at the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament in China.
Through it all, the eight career victories and the nearly $25 million in total earnings, Johnson has put himself through a maelstrom of these “personal struggles.”
As other players at this week’s PGA Tour event are asked about their troubled peer, they will use words like worried, saddened and hopeful.
The one word, though, that we won’t hear anyone in golf’s inner circle use to describe this latest surrounding Johnson? Surprised.