ERIN, Wis. — From the first days as a kid that Dustin Johnson started tagging along to the golf course or driving range with his father, Scott, a former teaching pro, he obeyed the most important lesson his father bestowed.
“Probably the biggest thing I learned from him would be controlling my attitude,” Johnson said. “He didn’t put up with pitching a fit on the course or throwing clubs, anything like that. That was not acceptable, especially because anything I did reflected on him.
“I might have done it a few times, but he straightened me out pretty quick.”
The strict guidance has served Johnson well. By controlling his emotions and tackling any issue with a peaceful disposition, the world No. 1 and defending U.S. Open champion has become the game’s dominant player. That trait has been instrumental as Johnson has outlasted heartache on the game’s biggest stages, from his collapse in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, to his penalty miscue on the final hole in the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, to his out-of-bounds 2-iron on the back nine of the final round in the 2011 British Open, to his three-putt on the 72nd hole from 12 feet in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
As he got into the car with his family following the one-shot loss to Jordan Spieth at Chambers Bay, Johnson was met with silence.
“I turned around and I’m like, ‘Guys, it’s just a golf tournament,’” Johnson said. “They were more upset about it than I was.”
That’s Dustin Hunter Johnson in a nutshell.
“It’s like he’s made out of Teflon. Everything you throw at him just slides off,” said Butch Harmon, Johnson’s coach for nearly 10 years. “His theory has always been, ‘They’re not going to let me go back and hit the shot again so why the hell should I think about it?’ To me he not only has the natural, God-given talent, and works as hard as anybody, he has the mentality to play this game unlike anyone I’ve ever known. Nothing bothers him.
“If you look at what happened to him in those four majors, any one of those things would probably ruin a guy’s career.”
Johnson’s biggest confrontation with potential ruin, however, came in last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club. On the fifth hole in the final round, his ball moved a hair as he addressed it with his putter. Johnson knew he didn’t cause the ball to move, the rules official agreed and no penalty was administered. Johnson, who started the final round four shots back, continued to play well and took a two-shot lead to the 12th tee.
That’s when chaos ensued.
A group of U.S. Golf Association officials met Johnson on the tee and told him the incident on the fifth green was being reviewed and he may be assessed a penalty. But the decision would not be made until Johnson was given a chance to watch a replay after the round.
From that point onward, Johnson nor any player with a chance to win knew where he stood on the leaderboard. The uncertainty scrambled the brains and emotions of a few players. Anger from Johnson’s peers erupted on Twitter.
Johnson just moseyed along.
“There was nothing I could do about it, so all I tried to do was just focus on that tee shot on 12, and just focus on every shot all the way to the house,” Johnson said afterward.
He played the last seven holes in even-par, with his towering 6-iron from 191 yards to four feet on the last cementing victory. The USGA did decide to penalize Johnson for the infraction on the fifth hole, but it proved meaningless as his final advantage was three.
Lee Westwood was paired with Johnson that final round. Westwood’s caddie, Billy Foster, bowed to Johnson behind the 18th hole.
“Dustin was the class player of the day,” Foster said. “For the USGA to come out on the 12th tee and say you may or may not have a penalty, I thought was disgraceful. I just tapped Dustin on the shoulder and said, ‘Listen man, forget it. You didn’t cause that ball to move and just concentrate on what you have to do.’ And some of the shots he hit on the last three or four holes were magnificent. Respect to him. That’s why I bowed to him.”
Curtis Strange, the last player to win the U.S. Open in back-to-back years, was an on-course commentator that day and, working one group behind Johnson, saw what was unfolding.
“He showed some inner strength to forge ahead,” Strange said. “D.J. has an enormous amount of street smarts and he has an enormous amount of golf sense. You don’t get into position as many times as he has without the ability to really play the game. Last year he got another curveball and overcame it.
“ … I admire the hell out of him after last year.”
Johnson’s maiden victory in a major propelled him to new heights. Since winning the U.S. Open, Johnson, 32, has tacked on victories in three World Golf Championships events, one FedExCup Playoff event and a five-shot romp in the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club. In 21 worldwide starts since last year’s U.S. Open, he has 14 top-10s. He was 2-2 as the U.S. reclaimed the Ryder Cup. And he’s opened up a nearly five-point lead in the official world golf rankings.
Heading into this year’s Masters, Johnson won three consecutive starts and was the prohibitive favorite. But on the eve of the championship, the PGA Tour’s 2016 Player of the Year wiped out on a staircase, injured his back and left elbow and was forced to withdraw at the last minute.
Johnson took it in stride, rehabbed and put it behind him. While he’s lost a bit of momentum, he’s still the favorite this week at Erin Hills, which Harmon said is a perfect fit for Johnson’s power and touch.
Welcome to the world baby boy..we all love you so much @djohnsonpga 6/12/17 River Jones Johnson 👼🏼💙
A post shared by Paulina Gretzky (@paulinagretzky) on Jun 14, 2017 at 1:35pm PDT
He landed in Wisconsin on Tuesday on a high after becoming a father for the second time on Monday when his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, gave birth to their son, River Jones Johnson.
Fatherhood, Johnson said, has changed him. Golf is no longer his priority. His family is. And he said the change in his perspective has helped his golf game.
“At the end of the day whether I’m having a good day or bad day, when I either see my family or talk to them, if I was upset or even if I was happy with the way I played, none of that matters. I’m always happy and excited to be with them,” Johnson said. “Paulina and my son, they’re at home now. She’s a lot more comfortable and everybody is healthy. Obviously I don’t have to worry about them. Obviously that’s a big relief. But now I’ve got to play golf. This is why I’m here. I’m here to play golf.
“I’m here to compete.”
Steve DiMeglio, USA Today