Until June 19, Dustin Johnson wasn’t only the best player never to have won a major. As incongruous as it sounds, the then nine-time winner on the PGA Tour was one of the biggest underachievers in sports.
He’s 6-foot-4 and can dunk a basketball, could palm it in the seventh grade. In 2012, he took on three San Francisco Giants in a golf exhibition and hit drives off home plate into McCovey Cove, many traveling 330 yards.
His fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, recently told Golfweek that Dustin “is in a weird way an idol” to her father, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
“He just loves what Dustin can do,” Paulina Gretzky told the magazine. “Dustin is a phenomenon, he really is.”
Johnson’s peers know his skill and athleticism are virtually unmatched. But he’d been unable to use his gifts in the tournaments he coveted most.
“In my eyes he’s one of the most, if not the most, talented golfer in the world,” Ireland’s Shane Lowry said Wednesday, on the eve of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club.
But Johnson’s road had been pockmarked by potholes, his career defined by near-misses in majors.
Two years ago, Johnson withdrew from the Bridgestone Invitational on Monday, then issued a statement three days later that he was seeking professional help for “personal challenges.” He missed six months of competition as drug rumors swirled. Before that he’d been arrested on suspicion of DUI, the charge dismissed when he pleaded guilty to reckless driving.
His major championship history was just as rocky, and just as painful.
In the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, he grounded his club in a usual-looking bunker on the 18th hole and a 2-stroke penalty left him tied for fifth. He tied for second in the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George’s and in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. He held a 3-shot lead going into the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and shot 82, 16 strokes off his third-round score.
June 19 may have changed all that.
In the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont, Johnson survived a rule controversy that forced him to play the final seven holes unsure of whether he would be penalized for causing his ball to move on the fifth green.
As Twitter lit up with his fellow pros protesting the USGA’s refusal to make an immediate decision, Johnson shot 69, received a 1-stroke penalty and won by 3 shots over Lowry, Jim Furyk and Scott Piercy.
“This is just the beginning,” Paulina Gretzky told Golfweek afterward.
The confidence Johnson took from the victory, the relief he felt after winning a major, the inner strength required to finish at Oakmont without knowing where he stood could be the springboard to unlocking his potential.
Golf’s Big Three of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy might soon be the Big Four.
“Now I know I’ve got it for sure,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I believed that I had it, but there’s always that thing in the back of your head telling you, ‘Do you really have what it takes?’?”
Some believe the stability in Johnson’s life with Paulina, their 17-month-old son, Tatum, and her parents have been the key to Johnson’s breakthrough.
“My son, Paulina, they’re really good influences in my life, and I’ve got a good team around me. It definitely contributed,” Johnson said.
What Wayne Gretzky told him after the U.S. Open seemed to touch him.
“He was very happy and very proud,” Johnson said. “He was telling me how it was one of the greatest things he’s seen watching that, how it all unfolded, and to see me get it done. I thought that was really cool. It meant a lot because he’s seen a lot of good things.”
The trophy Johnson coveted is home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. When he returned from Oakmont he left it in the kitchen so he could see it when he came downstairs the next day. A vacation at Baker’s Bay in the Bahamas, where he celebrated his 32nd birthday on June 22, gave him time to exhale.
With the British Open in two weeks and the PGA Championship July 28-31, Johnson has a sense of what his first major victory could do for him.
Although he didn’t put it this way, it almost seems like one of those massive bridges over the Florida Intracoastal Waterway has lowered after an agonizing wait and his path to glory is wide open.
“The first one is definitely the hardest. Well, it was for me,” he said. “I kept telling you all, ‘It’s going to happen if I keep putting myself into position.’ Now that I know that … I mean, yeah, I think it’s the beginning.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.