Johnson has game – and life – on track

Dustin Johnson with his dog, Max, at home in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

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This story appears in the Feb. 12, 2010 issue of Golfweek.

MURRELL INLET, S.C. – Dustin Johnson is exercising in Coastal Carolina University’s golf fitness facility on a cool, fall day near Myrtle Beach. He repeatedly swings a medicine ball over his head, slams it against the floor and catches it. With each toss, Johnson throws the ball with increasing intensity. A wide grin creeps across his face as he expends more energy.

Johnson likes to hit things hard.

He was third on the PGA Tour in driving distance in 2009 at 308.3 yards, and nobody on Tour hit it closer on approaches from 200-plus yards.

There’s at least one stat more impressive than Johnson’s driving distance. He and Anthony Kim are the only players 25 or younger with multiple PGA Tour victories. Johnson, who has moved to No. 44 in the Official World Golf Ranking, earned a combined $4.7 million in his first two seasons as a pro.

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Dustin Johnson works out at Coastal Carolina's golf fitness center, a facility he helped make possible.

“I think I’ve proven to myself, and to everyone else, that I’m one of the best young players,” Johnson, 25, said.

“He knows he can play out here,” said Rickie Fowler, a 2007 Walker Cup teammate.

This week, Johnson will defend his second Tour title, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Johnson’s T-3 at Riviera Feb. 7 was his best finish since his 2009 victory at Pebble, site of this year’s U.S. Open.

His athleticism and body speed are two of his biggest strengths, and what Coastal Carolina coach Allen Terrell first noticed while recruiting him. Johnson is a lanky 6 feet, 4 inches, with long arms and quick muscles.

Said Terrell: “He had the swagger, and he had the build.”

Terrell, who still instructs Johnson, loves speed. It’s why there are almost no weight machines in the large exercise studio at TPC Myrtle Beach, where Johnson is performing an exercise called “figure-eight slammers.” Free weights and medicine balls line the walls. Tractor-trailer tires rest on a concrete slab out back, waiting for players to flip them over. A whiteboard in one corner details each Coastal player’s exercise regimen.

“That board’s not fun,” said Terrell, who also is director of instruction at TPC Myrtle Beach.

Johnson helped pay for the renovation of a one-story building at the club into a training center for the Coastal golf programs, a sign of appreciation for the school where the often-difficult process of translating potential into results took place.

• • •

The 10th hole at The Golf Club of Tennessee was set up as a simple par 3 for the first round of the 2005 NCAA East Regional. With half of the field starting its round there, the tees were moved up to a docile 150 yards, 50 yards shorter than normal.

Johnson, then a Coastal Carolina sophomore, didn’t make it look easy. With just a 9-iron in hand, he made the one mistake that the hole would severely punish, blocking his tee shot into the water right of the green, eventually making double bogey.

He still was 2 over when he hit his second shot onto the green at the par-5 17th. A thunderstorm caused a suspension of play before Johnson could attempt his eagle putt. As he sought shelter in the locker room, Johnson still was dismayed by his poor start. “We kind of regathered,” Terrell recalled.

Johnson remembers it differently: “I think he pretty much told us to get our heads out of our (rear ends) and start playing golf.”

Johnson complied. When play resumed, he made the putt for eagle, then birdied his next five holes, a swing that turned a potential over-par round into a 65. Two days later, Johnson had beaten a strong field for his first college victory. The win had transformed him from something of a local legend in South Carolina to a national-caliber collegian.

“That was his defining moment,” Terrell said. “You’re always just a streak away from finding your game. He put six holes together and hasn’t stopped since.”

• • •

The exquisite Golf Club of Tennessee, just west of Nashville, is a far cry from the course that shaped Johnson’s development.

Northwoods Golf Club, a 6,800-yard, P.B. Dye design in Johnson’s hometown of Columbia, S.C., isn’t always in the best condition, but it’s known for having some of the best money games in South Carolina. The competition is top-notch, attracting local tour pros such as Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, as well as players from out of state. Johnson was a regular in those games – as a high-schooler.

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Dustin Johnson relaxes at home in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“He came up the way I think all the tough competitors come up,” Terrell said of Johnson. “He was out there playing matches against guys twice his age. He knew how to play.

“I like (a) kid with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, and he had a pretty big one.”

Johnson never has lacked for confidence. He lacked guidance as an adolescent, though. Johnson ran with a troubled bunch in high school. Those around him say Johnson has a good heart, but his desire to avoid conflict led him into bad choices.

In January 2001, Johnson, then 16, was one of five boys who said they were coerced into committing a break-in for a friend’s older brother, Steve Gillian. (Johnson said he never left the car during the break-in.) A gun was stolen. Later, according to court documents, Gillian talked Johnson into buying ammunition for the handgun at a local Walmart because Johnson had a fake ID that stated he was 21.

Johnson did so “reluctantly,” according to court documents. Gillian used the weapon to murder a man later that month. Because of his connection to the crime, Johnson was required to pay restitution and agreed to testify against Gillian. In January 2009, Johnson was pardoned by the state after he had pled guilty to second-degree burglary.

“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Johnson said upon reflecting. “I didn’t really have a choice to be there. I was very young; I was coerced into doing stuff. You never really think about consequences.”

In March ’09, Johnson was charged with driving under the influence. A trial date has not been set. He says he is remorseful and that he no longer drives after so much as a single drink.

“I learn from my mistakes and don’t make them again,” Johnson said.

TPC Myrtle Beach owner Chip Smith sees a changed man.

“He’s grown up, . . . realizing that he needs to pay attention to all aspects of his life, whether they are business or personal,” Smith said.

• • •

After high school, Johnson spent a year at a local community college. Johnson’s grade-point average didn’t meet Coastal’s eligibility standards, Terrell said, but he persuaded the university president to admit him.

“Here was this South Carolina kid who just needed a second chance,” Terrell said. “I’m a risk-taker, so it didn’t bother me.”

Terrell, 34, was the type of old-school influence that Johnson needed. Terrell played golf at Methodist College in Fayetteville, N.C., and also was the football team’s inside linebacker and punter for one season.

“I like to joke with him that he’d be better-suited as a football coach,” Smith said.

Added Terrell: “The way we run our program, I knew we could help (Johnson). We’re pretty structured, and we make our kids pretty accountable and we work them pretty hard.”

From finding Johnson clubs that fit him better to instilling consistency in his practice habits, Terrell brought the structure that his player needed.

Despite his height, Johnson came to Coastal with standard-length clubs. A few times a year, Terrell tweaked the lie on Johnson’s clubs or added an extension to the shaft. Terrell didn’t want Johnson to notice the slight adjustments, but by his senior year, Johnson had clubs that fit his frame.

When instructing Johnson, Terrell works around the idiosyncrasies in Johnson’s swing, most notably a closed clubface. They meet at least once every two weeks, and Terrell uses drills that emphasize athleticism rather than technique.

“Most teachers would’ve took him and said we’re going to square that clubface up,” Terrell said. “If someone told him that, I don’t know where he’d be.”

• • •

Back at his Myrtle Beach home, which he shares with longtime girlfriend Amanda Caulder, Johnson reveals a side of himself not often seen by the public. He is sitting on a sofa with his Old English sheepdog, Max, kissing the dog and rubbing its head, all the while calling the dog by its nickname, “Boogie,” in a tone usually reserved for infants.

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Dustin Johnson shoots pool at his home in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Johnson’s softer side may be hard to see, given his imposing physique (including a soul patch) and his history, but those closest to him insist that he’s warm-hearted, and they say it with sincerity. Johnson can come off as aloof at introduction, but his charisma emerges as he warms to people.

“He’s the least-judgmental kid you’ll ever meet in your life,” Terrell said, “and I think because he’s been judged so much, he just knows he doesn’t like when it happens to him.”

When Johnson won his first Tour title at the Turning Stone Resort Championship in 2008, the trophy was sent directly to the TPC clubhouse, where it still sits.

When he received his first staff bag from TaylorMade, he had a TPC Myrtle Beach logo placed on the bag – free of charge – as a sign of gratitude.

And late last year, Johnson formed the Dustin Johnson Foundation. He said the charitable organization likely will focus on junior golf.

Said Terrell: “He’s starting to turn into a young man that’ll make everyone proud. He’s got an unbelievable heart.”

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