It was the perfect start – four consecutive rounds in the 60s on his way to his first World Golf Championships title in his first start of the 2013-14 season. It was the kind of start that inflates expectations and changes perspective.
“It's my biggest win I've had so far in my career,” he said last November following his three-stroke victory in China. “[A] major is always the next step.”
Dustin Johnson wouldn’t play in the year’s final major.
In fact, he wouldn’t play the last two months of the season or the Ryder Cup or defend that maiden WGC title in China after stepping away from professional golf on July 31 as a result of “personal challenges.”
How thoroughly things unraveled in 2014 for the long-hitting 30-year-old came sharply into focus a day after Johnson announced what he billed as a self-imposed exile when Golf.com published a tell-all tale of illegal drug use and infidelity.
According to an unnamed source, Johnson tested positive for marijuana use in 2009 and for cocaine in 2012 and 2014, the latter prompting a six-month suspension. The story also reported that Johnson is “known to have had sexual indiscretion with at least one wife of a PGA Tour player.”
Both Johnson’s manager with Hambric Sports, David Winkle, and the Tour declined comment on the story, although the circuit would later break silence and its long-held dictum not to comment on player matters with a cryptic statement.
“With regard to media reports that Dustin Johnson has been suspended by the PGA Tour, this is to clarify that Mr. Johnson has taken a voluntary leave of absence and is not under a suspension from the Tour,” the statement read.
Whatever prompted Johnson’s hiatus from professional golf, be it self-inflicted or imposed, his exit was not an isolated incident in ’14, a year which began with so much promise and included his WGC victory and two runner-up showings before the Tour had reached the Florida swing.
Less than two months after stepping away from the Tour, Johnson’s fiancée Paulina Gretzky revealed, via Instagram, that she was pregnant and word surfaced that he’d downsized his South Florida home and was earnestly preparing to return to the Tour early next year with swing coach Claude Harmon III and trainer Joey Diovisalvi.
“He is doing great,” Winkle told GolfChannel.com in October.
But Johnson’s season of discontent was far from over.
With a storyline that at times seemed plucked from a cheap crime novel, GolfChannel.com learned that Johnson had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against a former advisor and his former law firm.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed on Oct. 28, Nathan Hardwick, who had served on the board of Johnson’s foundation, and his former colleagues at the firm Morris-Schneider-Wittstadt conspired to defraud Johnson out of $3 million.
Among the 17 counts of racketeering and fraud is a surreal tale of betrayal that began when Hardwick convinced Johnson to loan his former firm $3 million as “a good investment.” Johnson later learned that Hardwick had been accused in a separate lawsuit of embezzling $30 million from the firm.
When Johnson confronted Mark and Rod Wittstadt, who are partners at the Morris-Schneider-Wittstadt firm, and demanded they return his money, the complaint claims the firm, “threatened to disclose private and confidential information about Johnson, which they learned in the course of their representation of Johnson as attorney, should he commence a lawsuit to seek repayment of the money.”
Taken in its entirety, the level of distraction endured by Johnson in 2014 is staggering and his relatively solid play is a testament to his ability to compartmentalize.
According to one source close to Johnson, the building storm appeared to reach a crescendo at the Open Championship, where he found himself alone in second place through 36 holes on his way to a tie for 12th place.
It would be the last Sunday and the last major he would play in 2014 on Tour, missing the cut the next week at the Canadian Open before beginning the chain of curious events with his announcement he was taking a leave of absence.
“I will use this time to seek professional help for personal challenges I have faced,” Johnson’s statement on July 31 read. “By committing the time and resources necessary to improve my mental health, physical well-being and emotional foundation, I am confident that I will be better equipped to fulfill my potential and become a consistent champion.”
It was a dramatically different tone from how Johnson began his season when he overpowered the field at the WGC-HSBC Champions to become the first player since Tiger Woods to win in each of his first seven seasons on Tour.
According to various reports, Johnson will likely pick up where he left off early next year at the Farmers Insurance Open, almost exactly six months since his last Tour start, still searching for that elusive first major as well as some peace of mind.