Inside the improbable rise of Dustin Johnson

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North agrees with McIlroy's criticisms (3:13)

Andy North joins SVP to discuss the shape of Erin Hills, the host of the 117th U.S. Open, and why it favors players like Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. (3:13)

ERIN, Wis. -- Dustin Johnson had this geography teacher in middle school, and one day that teacher asked her student to identify a certain place on the map.

"Mrs. Kennedy," the boy responded, "I don't need to know where that is. When I'm on tour, I'll get my pilot to fly my private jet to where I need to go."

Mrs. Kennedy thought young Dustin was positively mad, and she shared that story with one of the boy's golf instructors, Kevin Britt, who was used to hearing Dustin say things such as, "Britt-dog, you're going to be out there someday when I win the Masters." Over dinner with Johnson a couple of months ago, Britt-dog reminded his former player about the answer he once gave Mrs. Kennedy.

"And I was right," Johnson shot back.

Yes, he was. Johnson is the best golfer in the world, of that there is no doubt. He won the U.S. Open at Oakmont last year, and not a single soul on the grounds at Erin Hills this week will be surprised if he joins Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange as the only champions of this tournament since World War II to successfully defend their titles.

But how did Johnson possibly make that journey from a cocksure South Carolina country boy to a place where some believe he's the most physically gifted man to ever play the game, Eldrick Tiger Woods and Jack William Nicklaus included?

His journey is supposed to represent a triumph of talent and temperament over golf-course intelligence, or lack thereof. Only it can't be that simple, right? Johnson could not have mastered perhaps the most mentally taxing game of all without leaning on his brain along with that staggering tee-to-green brawn, could he?

At 32, Johnson has 15 PGA Tour victories to his name and stands with Woods and Nicklaus as the only players to win at least once a season during his first 10 years on tour. He has fame and fortune, a gorgeous fiancée (Paulina Gretzky), two healthy sons (including a boy born Monday), maybe the coolest father-in-law-to-be on the planet (Wayne Gretzky) and a devoted brother on his bag (Austin). He is also said to have healthy, functional relationships on both sides of a marriage between his mother and father that dissolved when he was 15.

And he's the dense one?

Truth be told, Johnson's journey to the top has been bouncier than the fall he took on a staircase that cost him a chance to play in the Masters two months ago, a chance to extend his tour winning streak to four by claiming the green jacket. But that turbulent trip helps explain Johnson's current stability and serenity. Only someone who has endured two lifetimes' worth of adversity could've survived last year's U.S. Open at Oakmont, a most forbidding test, and the mother of all dark USGA comedies that summoned the demons of Johnson's major championships past.

Only someone who has figured out a game that is impossible to figure could arrive at this monstrous, 7,741-yard ballpark northwest of Milwaukee with many opponents believing they'll be playing for second place if Johnson regains his pre-Masters form.

Of course, to understand where Johnson is, you need to understand where he's been. "It's not like he grew up with a perfect life," said his college teammate and roommate at Coastal Carolina, Cameron Hooper. "In that way, Dustin's the story of America."

Or at least a story most American sports fans can appreciate, one of a country boy overpowering a country club sport and making it look much easier than his road to No. 1.


Scott Johnson was an all-state wide receiver at South Carolina's Chapin High, and he had a shot to play football in college. He was working at a liquor distributorship one day when he gashed his arm opening a case of wine, causing tendon damage that required a couple of surgeries and left him in a cast for more than a year. His football career was over, and an entirely different game started to fill the void.

Johnson didn't start playing golf until he was 19 or 20 years old. "Golf wasn't cool back then," he said. Johnson quickly became an advanced player and, ultimately, the head pro at the Mid Carolina Club outside of Columbia.

Mondays to Fridays, he had trouble getting his young son Dustin out of bed to go to school. Saturday mornings, Dustin would wake his father at 6:30 and beg to go to the course. The boy would hit balls and play until 9 p.m. Scott would have to force him to go inside for lunch or to take a dip in the pool. As a seventh-grader who was already beating grown-up members in money games, Dustin stood before a golf coach at Irmo High School who thought the kid was too young to try out for the varsity and too young to make any overnight team trips.

Dustin took one swing of his driver, and suddenly the coach wasn't so worried about the kid's age or hotel accommodations. Two years before most kids enter high school, Dustin placed among the top 10 in the state tournament.

By the time he was 14, Dustin was shooting low to mid-60s, breaking local course records and also running with a fast and loose crowd. He was missing school enough to be tossed from the golf team, and at 16, he was one of five boys recruited by the older brother of a friend to burglarize a home. Johnson didn't enter the home, but he was in a waiting car when a .38-caliber gun was stolen by the group.

The following day, his friend's older brother, Steven Gillian, strong-armed Dustin into buying bullets at a Walmart. Gillian later pumped five of those bullets into a man's head, and Gillian was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary, testified against Gillian, and was forced to pay restitution for the theft. (He was pardoned by the state in 2009.)

"Dustin and all the children involved were innocent," said Johnson's mother, Kandee. "They were bullied by an older guy with major problems."

"It was scary," said Scott. "But I knew Dustin was a good kid caught up in a bad situation."

Scott and Kandee have three children -- Dustin, the oldest, followed by his sister, Laurie, and brother, Austin. Before they separated, Scott and Kandee had owned the pro shop and ran the driving range at Mid Carolina. Scott gave the lessons, Kandee managed the books and Dustin played and practiced, practiced and played. Kandee disputed the previously published contention that their divorce was acrimonious.

"It was like any other divorce," she said. "We weren't the best of friends, but we got along for the children. We were at games together, golf tournaments. So it was civil because we had children."

Kandee said the children "split their time half and half" between father and mother. Dustin and Austin grew into prodigious athletes, in part because their maternal grandfather, Art Whisnant, helped shepherd them through a variety of youth sports, particularly basketball. A three-time All-ACC forward and center at South Carolina, the 6-foot-4 Whisnant was picked by the Los Angeles Lakers as the 44th overall choice in the 1962 NBA draft. He suffered a foot infection and ended up playing for the Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Barons of the Eastern League, and it didn't much matter. Out of Icard, North Carolina, Whisnant had little desire to play for the Lakers.

"I hated L.A. with a passion," he said. "Too far away from home for me."

Whisnant had three daughters, and he told his oldest, Kandee, that her two boys were his as soon as they got out of diapers. Austin was three years younger than Dustin and just about as skilled on the golf course. "One of my biggest mistakes," Whisnant said, "was pushing Austin into basketball. If he stayed with golf, there's no doubt in my mind he'd be on the PGA Tour today."

Whisnant traveled around the country coaching Austin's AAU basketball team, eventually helping him land a Division I offer at Charleston Southern. Dustin could've been a major-college baller, too. He had Whisnant's height, long arms, Arnold Palmer-size hands and the requisite vertical leap and athleticism to grab defensive rebounds and go coast-to-coast with the ball.

But Dustin's heart belonged to golf, even if he lost two seasons of high school play to truancy. He loved to send balls whistling into Lake Murray from his grandfather's backyard, and to clear the trees in junior tournaments while going for the green on dog-legged par-4s. Sometimes he'd stay so long at the local driving range, Weed Hill, that instructor Britt would leave him there at 10 p.m. and ask him to shut off the lights. Dustin transferred to Dutch Fork High School, returned to the golf team his senior year, and led it to a 27-stroke victory for the state title.

Dustin Johnson attended Midlands Technical College for the couple of courses he needed before he enrolled at Coastal Carolina, where the coach, Allen Terrell, applied a tough-love approach defined by 6:30 a.m. workouts and a mandate to attend class.

"Dustin needed some direction," Terrell said. "He needed a future.

"But I knew how big his heart was the first time I met him. You can sense what kind of person someone is by the nice things he said about his grandmother, his mom, his sister. Nothing against Kandee and Scott, because it's just the nature of divorce. But he was bouncing from one house to the next and had to change high schools and there was a lot of stuff going on. He just got pulled onto the wrong trail."

It took some time for Johnson to accept Terrell's brand of discipline, but soon enough the coach would show up at his early morning practices and Dustin would be there waiting for him. Over four years, Johnson all but single-handedly made Coastal Carolina a national program, stunning his teammates with his power, his touch, his fearlessness, his ability to party at night without hurting his game the next day and, above all else, his unbending faith in himself. Early in his time on campus, Dustin called his mother and asked to borrow $5,000. Kandee reminded him that $5,000 was a lot of money to a single mother of three. "Mom," Dustin said, "I'll pay you back when I turn pro."

Johnson won all sorts of college tournaments, and in his senior year, 2007, he led the Chanticleers to a fifth-place finish in the NCAA tournament. His teammates still share stories about the amazing feats they witnessed. That time he sank a do-or-die chip on the 18th hole at Duke. That time he found the tiniest gap between tree limbs in the deep woods and landed his impossible 130-yard shot 5 feet from the cup. That time he posterized several opponents in a pickup basketball game. That time he jumped on a new leg-press machine and moved plates so big his roommate and co-captain, Cameron Hooper, couldn't carry them.

Johnson's teammates all thought he could've been a big league pitcher or an NFL quarterback. They included Hooper from Jacksonville, Florida, Zack Byrd from Calabash, North Carolina, Joachim Fourquet from Bordeaux, France, and Holton Freeman from Asheville, North Carolina. They all knew Johnson was playing a game with which they were not familiar.

Hooper, now a financial adviser in Atlanta: "I grew up idolizing Tiger Woods, and I knew Dustin was so much better than Tiger. I just saw a lot more consistency out of Dustin, and for how far he hits it, how straight he hits it, is incredible. My dad loves Jack [Nicklaus], and I grew up with Tiger, but right now, Dustin's the best golfer I've ever seen."

Byrd, now a player on South Africa's Sunshine Tour: "If Dustin had Tiger's work ethic, he'd blow every Tiger and Jack record out of the water, or burn out in a year and never play again. I don't know which would happen. I've never played golf with Jack or Tiger, but I've played a U.S. Open and I've been out with the best in the world. Dustin's the best player who ever played the game."

Freeman, now a teacher under Sean Foley, Woods' former coach: "Dustin's basically like the LeBron James of the PGA Tour, and comparing him [to Tiger] is like comparing LeBron or Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan. It's impossible to say. ... I do think Dustin, in his prime right now, is far and away the best player in the world."

Fourquet, now the co-founder and CFO of Robin'Finance in France: "When I first came to the U.S. and saw Dustin, I thought his swing was terrible. I thought, 'Who is this guy?' And then I played with him and he shot 65. In Europe, I thought Rafa Cabrera Bello was very good when I played with him, and he has 10 percent of the talent of Dustin Johnson. Dustin's the best player I've ever seen."


The people who really know Dustin Johnson -- the family members and teammates and coaches -- were not surprised he survived the USGA's monumental blunder at Oakmont last year, when officials approached Dustin on the 12th tee to tell him he might -- might -- get penalized over the movement of his ball on the fifth green, a movement all witnesses agreed wasn't caused by Johnson.

They'd seen Dustin weather so many storms in the past, some of his own design and some not, some on the course and some off. He had more than his fair share of pain in his personal life beyond the divorce and the Gillian case. In 1996, his mother's sister Julie Whisnant was killed in a hot-air balloon crash. Julie used to babysit for Dustin and his siblings, and the family never truly got over it.

In 2008, Johnson's first year on tour, Carole Jones, his paternal grandmother who had moved to Myrtle Beach to watch over Dustin at Coastal Carolina, suddenly died from complications from elective back surgery, breaking her grandson's heart. The following year, Johnson was arrested for DUI. Five years later, Golf.com reported Johnson was suspended six months after failing three drug tests, two for cocaine. Johnson denied the report and said he took a leave from the tour to deal with personal challenges. He denied having a drug problem but admitted to ESPN that he would "drink to excess."

Everyone in Johnson's life agrees the time away from the tour and the 2015 birth of his first son, Tatum, made him a changed man. Matured him. Woke him up. They also agree that meltdowns at previous majors -- the final-round 82 at Pebble Beach in 2010, the bunker follies at Whistling Straits two months later, the out-of-bounds shot at Royal St. George's in 2011 and the three-jack at Chambers Bay on the 72nd green -- hardened him for those final seven holes at Oakmont.

"I just told myself," said Scott Johnson, "'This can't be happening again. After everything that happened to Dustin and all the stuff he's gone through, it just can't be happening again.' But even with all the other players tweeting that they were furious, Dustin's the only one at Oakmont who didn't get mad."

He got even instead. How in the world did he keep his head while everybody around him was losing theirs?

"When you look at the backstory of Dustin's life," Hooper said, "golf is probably the easiest thing he's ever done."

That's why his temperament is among the best clubs in his bag. Austin, brother and caddie, said after Dustin's U.S. Open triumph that he's "never seen him get pissed off." Their grandfather, Whisnant, added: "I've never seen Dustin want to fight someone or throw a club or anything. I've never seen him mad his entire life."

To a man, his college teammates said they'd never seen Johnson unnerved by high-stakes pressure or a wayward bounce. Fourquet recalled what was likely the one and only time Johnson let down his Coastal Carolina team. The Chanticleers had a big lead late in this one tournament, Fourquet said, before Dustin put a few balls out of bounds on the final hole to blow the whole thing. With a smile and a shrug, Johnson barely apologized to his teammates before reminding them that golf is just a game.

"If he doesn't play good," Fourquet said, "he doesn't care. I've played with him during tournaments and I don't even know if he knew he was 4 under or 9 under or 2 over. ... He 3-putted the last hole of the U.S. Open [at Chambers Bay], and everyone thought he was going to be so disappointed. And maybe he was for a day. But Dustin isn't really going to care tomorrow. He's going to go to the swimming pool and get back to his life."

This year's Masters might've been an exception to the DJ rule. He adores Augusta National, and he was favored to win by Secretariat lengths. He slipped on those three wooden stairs the day before the tournament, and suddenly the thoroughbred couldn't make it to the gate. Austin called their father with the news, and Scott drove in from Columbia, South Carolina, the next morning to be with his son.

"It was worse than Dustin first thought," Scott said. "He thought he'd be sore for a couple of days, but he didn't play until nine days after it happened, and that was for only five holes."

Johnson returned to competition at the Wells Fargo Championship in early May and didn't appear burdened by the Masters week that wasn't, and for good reason: Johnson never appears burdened by anything. Asked where her son gets his disposition, Kandee credited her ex-husband.

"Dustin's father is really laid-back and never got upset, just like Dustin," she said. "I've never heard Dustin or his daddy say one negative word about anyone, and that's a great characteristic to have as a human being."


Dustin Johnson's rise to the top of the golf world has been a gift to those who raised him. To Kandee, who has been employed by South Carolina's workers' compensation commission for 19 years. To Scott, who left the Mid Carolina Club in 1998 -- after a contract disagreement with its board of directors -- and has installed graphics on the sides of tractor trailers, worked for ADT and sold cars in the years since.

Scott said he's considering a return to golf instruction. He taught his oldest child how to play and how to conduct himself and, all these years later, he's content to let Paulina's father, Wayne Gretzky, be the most conspicuous parental presence in Dustin's touring life.

"Wayne has been a really good influence on him," Scott said, "and I'm perfectly happy in my role and with the way things are."

If there's anything amiss in the way things are for the Johnsons, it's the way Dustin is perceived. As a thinker, Dustin will never be confused with Stephen Hawking. His philosophy on the course is effectively a non-philosophy. He sees ball, he hits ball. He admits that his Nicklaus fade off the tee and his improved wedge game work better when he's "not thinking too much."

Only the notion that Johnson has had to physically overcome a narrow intellectual capacity is foreign to the people who know him best. His mother called him "academically brilliant" and said he was an A student when he did, in fact, show up for class. As for his golf course IQ, Kandee said, "I don't think he gets the credit he deserves."

Dustin Johnson doesn't get caught up in the Internet or TV commentary on his game; it's not how he's wired. But his friends and supporters are fully aware of how he is perceived. They believe his "whatever" demeanor, along with short and simple answers to news media queries, paint a picture of him that doesn't jibe with reality. They believe there's a certain intelligence in avoiding the paralysis-by-analysis approach that diminishes the overthinkers on tour.

"I actually 100 percent disagree with the people who say Dustin isn't that smart," said Hooper, who was Johnson's substitute caddie at the 2012 Tour Championship. "I truly believe Dustin is probably one of the smartest guys out there on tour. When he tries to ... talk about it, it comes out very simplistic. But his brain works in a way that I don't think anybody else's does. It sounds simple because it is simple to him. In multiple-choice tests in school, he was always strong because he had great reasoning skills. If you asked him to write a big essay on the French economy, it's probably not something he'd like to do."

Joachim Fourquet, French entrepreneur, could handle that one. He had studied physics and chemistry before arriving in the U.S. and was regarded as the smartest member of Johnson's Coastal Carolina team. One teammate called Fourquet the equivalent of a rocket scientist.

By phone from France the other day, Fourquet was asked for his impression of Johnson's golfing brain. He said he'd played a lot with a young Martin Kaymer, and that Kaymer's calculated approach was the polar opposite of Johnson's. Kaymer knew every aspect of the course, Fourquet said. He, too, was a scientist on the tee box.

"With Dustin," Fourquet continued, "everything is simple for him. There's a ball, put it in the hole. I don't know if that's smart or not smart, but he's the only one who can do that right now. Dustin's brain is different. Some might say [his approach] isn't smart, but he's the best golfer in the world.

"To me, that makes him a genius."