When Dustin Johnson returns to the PGA Tour in two weeks at the Farmers Insurance Open it will have been six months since last he plied his trade at the highest level, but for the 30-year-old it may as well have been a lifetime ago.
When the eight-time Tour winner finished up his season at the Canadian Open he was, by his own admission, not happy. He was tired of underachieving – again, by his own admission – and needed to reset.
Since then he’s surrounded himself with an assortment of professionals and even a “life coach,” to learn how to deal with stress and the realities of a vastly changing world, none bigger than the birth of Johnson and fiancé Paulina Gretzky’s first child, son Tatum, on Monday.
“He’s awesome. Couldn’t be better. It’s been really, really cool,” Johnson told GolfChannel.com Friday in a one-one-one phone interview.
But then fatherhood doesn’t seem to fully describe the transformation Johnson said he has made in the last six months.
When he bolted the Tour last July “to seek professional help for personal challenges,” few could have predicted how hectic the next few months would be.
Two days after announcing his leave of absence, Golf.com, citing an unnamed source, reported that Johnson had actually been suspended by the Tour for failing his third drug test. Both the Tour and Johnson denied that report.
“No. I’ve already answered all these questions,” Johnson said on Friday when asked about a prior Golf.com report.
He did concede, however, that there were plenty of challenges he needed to face before becoming a father or returning to professional golf. Although he said he didn’t go to a rehabilitation clinic, he did surround himself with people who could teach him how to deal with life’s unpredictability.
“I had to take a look at my goals,” he said. “Finding out Paulina 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.”
One of those people who stepped in to help was Paulina’s father, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
Johnson sold his South Florida home, although he has purchased a new home just down the street that he plans to move into once it’s renovated, and spent much of the last six months living in a rented house near Gretzky at Sherwood Country Club outside Los Angeles.
“He’s been great,” Johnson said. “Honestly, you can’t ask for a better role model as far as sports are concerned. The things he’s done in his career no one will ever do. Just having someone like that to talk to. We played golf every day. We see them every day, we have breakfast up there and dinner with them.”
Gretzky taught Johnson how to engage fans and deal with the pressures that come with a high-profile marriage. But mostly Gretzky just listened to a man who has never seemed entirely comfortable in the spotlight and often resorted to self-destructive outlets to deal with his pressures.
“One big thing that I learned was stress. The way I describe it is the way I am on the golf course I act like I don’t get too excited or too down on myself. I kind of transferred that over to life,” Johnson said.
“I always kept things inside. I never dealt with them. When I was drinking, I’d drink too much. Dealing with all that helped a bunch.”
Johnson recently worked with his swing coach, Butch Harmon, who said he’s impressed with the new and improved player, both physically and mentally.
“He seems to have his head on straight and is in great shape,” Harmon said.
A large part of Johnson’s transformation was prompted by the impending birth of his son, but there was also an underlying desire to turn what he says has been a good career into a great one.
Reaching his full potential crystalized in September while he watched the U.S. team – a team he qualified for but didn’t play on following his announced hiatus – at the Ryder Cup.
“The only thing I regret is not playing in the Ryder Cup,” he said. “Everything I have done has been to help me and help my family. Right now I couldn’t be in a better place, and I’m focused on playing as well as I can.”
It will be a 146-mile drive from Los Angeles to Torrey Pines for Johnson’s first start of the year, but that doesn’t come close to the metaphorical distance he seems to have traveled in his return to the Tour.