The transformation of Dustin Johnson began in a Whistling Straits closet turned scoring hut with an eraser, of all implements.
Or maybe the epiphany came on Pebble Beach’s second hole on Sunday at this year’s national championship. Or a Las Vegas office in April with a tough decision, or a dark South Carolina byway in 2009 following a bad decision. Or was it another nondescript cubicle in Myrtle Beach, S.C., some six years before that?
If all great careers begin with an “ah ha” moment, Johnson’s ride to the top has been dotted with more turns and detours than a southern California “shortcut,” but the day he arrived on campus at Coastal Carolina in 2003 seems a logical jumping off point.
Allen Terrell, the Chanticleers’ golf coach who recruited Johnson, remembers 6 foot, 4 inches of talent that was filled with insecurity which manifested itself in an attitude that wasn’t always productive. What Terrell liked about his new charge, beyond his obvious physical gifts, was his ability to learn quickly, like the time he showed up late to a team meeting.
“He got three hours in the range picker listening to Allen’s life lessons,” Terrell recalled during a conversation in June. “He was never late again.”
From there Johnson blossomed, a Walker Cup and PGA Tour card (2007) were followed by a victory his rookie year (2008) and another just months later at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am (2009).
But in the spring of 2009 there was a wrong turn in his rise when he was arrested in Myrtle Beach for driving under the influence.
“Eight years ago, however long ago, I couldn’t see myself being here,” Johnson said after his ’09 Pebble Beach victory. A little over two months later the rest of the golf world began to understand what he meant.
It’s a testament to Johnson’s drive and talent that he has climbed as high as he has, No. 12 in the world and among a half dozen contenders for the Player of the Year trophy heading into next week’s Tour Championship, having faced as many demons as he has in a life that has been less than charmed.
A little over a year later he followed that “bad” decision with perhaps the toughest choice of his short professional life when he approached Butch Harmon for swing advice. He’d worked with Terrell since coming to Coastal Carolina, and, luckily for Johnson, the coach said the two still talk regularly about the golf swing as well as life. But that didn’t make the decision any easier.
Many within “Camp Dustin” say that first meeting between prospect and swing professor in Harmon’s Las Vegas office set the tone for the rest of 2010.
“We sat down in Butch’s office and he put down pictures of Dustin and (Harmon’s father, Claude) at the top of their back swings,” Johnson’s caddie Bobby Brown recalled. “Claude was shut at the top, just like Dustin and (Harmon) said he wasn’t going to try to change that.”
What followed was an unforgettable summer. The highlight shows will remember the triple bogey on Pebble Beach’s second hole and final-round 82 at the U.S. Open, but all Johnson recalls from that fateful Sunday was that he put himself in the hunt to win a major championship.
Pete Dye’s penchant for poorly placed bunkers and Johnson using his eraser to add one will be the lasting collective snapshots from the PGA Championship, but Johnson’s revisionist history recalls only birdies on two of his last three holes of regulation.
It isn’t so much that he won last week’s BMW Championship, Tour titles seem like foregone conclusions at this point, it’s how quickly he processed mounting heartbreak and moved on.
Similarly, it’s not how he’s handled victory or defeat it’s how he’s co-opted the two into a singular bulletin board message – improve.
We’ve watched plenty of singular talents fall well short of potential, the byproduct of unrealistic expectations, wavering focus or both. But Johnson has won big, lost big and has never stopped thinking big.
Randy Myers, Johnson’s Sea Island (Ga.) based trainer, calls Johnson the next generation of golfer. During a different time Johnson would have played basketball, like his grandfather at South Carolina, or football or baseball.
“This guy is a race horse,” Myers said. “He’s the Randy Moss of golf. The Derek Jeter. They used to say Cal Ripken was too tall to play shortstop, now they are all 6-foot-3. Once you can teach these guys to be athletic, one of these guys will change the game.”
Earlier this year at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral Johnson underwent a sports performance assessment test. On a whim, Myers had his results compared to that of NBA players. His vertical leap was in the 70 percent range for an NBA player and his speed and strength were also comparable.
Whether Johnson is golf’s new professional prototype is a question for the next generation. Where he counts among the current crop, however, is starting to become more apparent.
Johnson is the only current twenty-something with more than three Tour titles and his BMW performance was impressive to the extreme. Consider Sunday’s card at Cog Hill, he led the field with a 313-yard driving average, contain your surprise. What may warrant a double-take is that the big man hit 10 of 14 tree-lined fairways. Not bad for a bomber.
During a quiet dinner last Tuesday in Chicago Myers noticed a change. “I saw this calm in him that I hadn’t seen in him for a long while,” he recalled. “We knew he had the physical capabilities, but the thing was his power under pressure. All these things finally started coming together.”
Perhaps his BMW breakthrough, an emotional accomplishment more so than a competitive eureka moment, will be remembered as the pivotal moment in his career. With Johnson, you can pick your epiphany, they all lead down the same road.