PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – “Redeemed himself a little bit from last year,” Dustin Johnson said with a smile.
Johnson was talking about his brother, Austin, who punched a 9-iron into the wind at the famous 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass on Wednesday to 18 feet in the annual caddie closest-to-the-pin contest.
For all the change in Johnson’s life the last few months, however, he could just as easily been referring to himself.
A day after announcing he is taking a leave of absence from the PGA Tour last August, Golf.com reported Johnson had been suspended for six months after testing positive for cocaine.
The Tour and Johnson both denied the report, which cited a single unidentified source, and he returned to the circuit in February at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Whatever demons Johnson needed to overcome – be they the “personal problems” he cited when he stepped away or something much more serious– the aftermath has been nothing short of a true redemption story.
After missing the cut at Torrey Pines, Johnson finished in the top 10 in five of his next six starts, including his victory at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and his best showing at the Masters (T-6).
For those closest to him, that seamless rebound was hardly a surprise.
“The talent has always been there. You didn’t expect anything else when he came back,” swing coach Butch Harmon said on Wednesday at TPC Sawgrass.
What has surprised those around the slugger is the poise and maturity he has shown since returning from his hiatus.
“He’s a completely different person,” Harmon said. “What I’ve seen is a person, he may only be 30 years old, but he’s finally grown up and matured. He’s embraced that responsibility and it’s done wonders for him.”
Johnson was always a singular talent with well above-average power on a tour where potential is measured by the yard. He currently holds the longest active streak for most consecutive seasons with at least one victory – eight seasons and counting – and when his swing is timed up, as it was at Doral, he has the ability to dominate fields.
At Doral he rallied from five strokes behind J.B. Holmes with a closing 69 to claim his first World Golf Championship title.
But then all along it was the battles off the golf course that seemed to be Johnson’s toughest opponent.
Although he remains unwilling to go into details, his decision to step away from the game “to seek professional help for personal challenges,” was a nod to his unfulfilled potential.
“I had to take a look at my goals,” he told GolfChannel.com in January. “Finding out [fiancée] Paulina [Gretzky] was pregnant I knew it was time to do some soul searching and really work on me. I want to be a great father and a great husband.”
By all accounts he’s succeeding on both fronts.
The new and improved DJ shed 12 pounds while adding muscle and refined a power game that was already the gold standard on Tour.
He also added a support structure, including a “life coach” and regular conversations with Wayne Gretzky, Paulina’s father. But the biggest change in Johnson’s life has been the addition of Tatum, his son who was born on Jan. 19.
“His demeanor has completely changed. The responsibility of being a dad and having a child has changed him totally on his outlook of life and how he’s lived his life in the past,” Harmon said. “He seems to have a sense of calm about him that I’ve never seen before.”
The most interesting part of fatherhood has been how it’s impacted Johnson’s life away from the golf course. Asked on Wednesday at TPC Sawgrass how he balances his time Johnson’s take was telling.
“I’m in the gym early in the mornings so I can get home in the afternoon and hang out with the little man,” he said.
Competitively, this week represents another milestone for Johnson. In a half dozen starts at the Tour’s marquee event his best finish is a tie for 34th and he’s posted just one round in the 60s.
It’s an inexplicable drought for a game that has always travelled well.
“I like the golf course a lot. But it’s tough, it’s always windy, it plays difficult. The greens are tricky,” said Johnson, before quickly adding what can only be described as an internal pep talk, “I feel like I’m playing a lot more consistent this year. I’m driving it a little bit straighter. That will definitely help around here.”
It’s a striking new outlook, but then what else would one expect from a player who is featured on the cover of June’s Golf Digest adjacent the headline, “The New DJ.”