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The Good Life

The Natural

Masters Champion Dustin Johnson is the best golfer in the world, a role he’s been preparing for since he was a boy
By David Savona | From Dustin Johnson and Paulina Gretzky, March/April 2021
The Natural
Photo/Kyodo News via Getty Images
A master at work. Dustin Johnson teeing off during the third round of the 2020 Masters, which he went on to win in convincing fashion.

When he arrived at the hallowed grounds of Augusta National for the much-delayed 2020 Masters last November, Dustin Johnson was a portrait in confidence. At his press conference before the first round began, he sat his six-foot-four frame into a chair and smiled, sounding ready without appearing cocky. It was his 10th Masters, a tournament he had never won. He had lost by only one stroke in 2019, and was coming in with momentum, as the No. 1 golfer in the world and the winner of the 2020 Tour Championship and FedEx Cup.

He answered all the questions with ease, and showed just how relaxed he was when fielding the final question: what’s your favorite Masters tradition? “For me,” he said after a pause, “my favorite thing about the Masters is the sandwiches.”

The 36-year-old Johnson took that cool, calm and collected mindset from the press conference to the tournament, striding to every tee box with a swagger. His drives leapt off the club as if fired from a howitzer, and he led the tournament from start to finish, setting a Masters record with a final score of 20 under par. It was his second major victory.

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Tiger Woods, 2019 Masters champion, putting the green jacket on new winner Dustin Johnson in November. At right, Johnson and his fiancée Paulina Gretzky. (Photo/Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

When it was all over, his fiancée Paulina Gretzky reached up and threw her arms around his neck, giving him a celebratory kiss. Then 2019 champion Tiger Woods presented him with the green jacket, the most coveted piece of wardrobe in all of sports. And that’s when the emotions began to pour out, and the gravity of the victory began to sink in.

“It’s a dream come true,” Johnson said in his post-round interview. “As a kid, I always dreamed about being a Masters champion.” His words failed him, and he took a breath. “It’s hard to talk,” he said. He looked down, blinked several times and took another breath, silent for several seconds. “It’s just incredible, as you can tell. Sorry,” he said quietly, before wiping away a tear.

Plenty of star athletes were famously underestimated in their youth. Tom Brady was taken with draft pick No. 199, and only got to play with the Patriots after the starting quarterback went down to injury. Charles Barkley failed to make his high school basketball team the first time he tried. Dodgers great Orel Hershiser originally couldn’t make his high school or college baseball teams. But Johnson has been a standout golfer since he was in middle school. As a kid, he was telling his friends in South Carolina that he’d be playing golf for a living and he once told a teacher he would fly in private planes from one tournament to the next. The bold prediction has come true. At 36, he’s won two majors, the Masters and the 2016 U.S. Open, and has come oh-so-close in the other two, finishing second at both the British Open and the PGA Championship. He’s the top-ranked golfer in the world and has spent more time on that list than all but two people, Tiger Woods and Greg Norman.

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Johnson crushing a drive on the 17th hole during his final round of the 2020 Masters. (Photo/Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

“That’s what drives me every day is to want to be in that position,” he says. “And being there drives me to stay there.”

Dustin Hunter Johnson was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, not much more than an hour’s drive away from Magnolia Lane and the world’s most famous golf course. Johnson visited Augusta in his youth, and dreamt of playing—and winning there—when he was but a boy. His father, Scott, was a club pro at Mid Carolina Club in Prosperity, South Carolina, about 40 minutes from home. Golf was on Dustin’s mind from an early age. He started playing at age six, when he would follow his dad to the golf course while on break from school. “When I was real young, like 6, 7, 8, 9, I would play golf just in the summertime. I would go to work with my dad, ’cause he was a club pro. Hit balls, swim in the pool,” says Johnson. “I was at the golf course pretty much all summer when I was little.” When summer was over he would play other sports—baseball, soccer, basketball—and he excelled at all of them. “I could be remembering incorrectly but I felt I was always the best kid on the team for whatever sport I was playing,” he says, a believable statement from a man who looks like he could play the starring role in a reboot of Tarzan.

After grade six, he left the other sports behind. “In seventh grade, I just went to golf,” he says. He started spending more and more time at the Weed Hill Driving Range, which stayed open until 10 p.m., and began working with instructors Kevin Britt and Jimmy Koosa. Young Johnson would pound balls almost without a break. “I was there most nights till 10 o’clock,” he says. “Most days I shut the lights off there.”

He was big as a kid, but thin. “Tall for seventh grade, but I was a beanpole,” he says. He began hitting the ball far enough to compete with much older kids and made his high school varsity golf team when he was only a seventh grader, right around the same time he smashed his first 300-yard drive. “I was hitting it definitely far for my age, for sure. The guys on the team—there was a senior, couple of juniors, maybe a sophomore and then me. They were a lot older. They hit it a little bit further, but I kept up with them pretty good.” By the time he was a high school senior, he was ranked 19th in the United States.

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Dustin and Paulina celebrating victory at the 2016 U.S. Open. (Photo/Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Johnson went to college at Coastal Carolina, in the golf hotspot of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he was an All-American. He still holds the record for lowest scoring average (70.4) in the school’s history. He graduated in 2007 and later that year he turned pro, quickly earning his PGA Tour card for 2008.

It didn’t take the big South Carolinian long to taste victory for the first time, winning in his rookie season at the age of 24. He began a streak that continues to this day, winning at least once in each of his first 13 seasons, joining Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, exalted company. He has 24 PGA Tour victories so far, tied for 26th place all-time with Gary Player and ahead of such big names as Greg Norman and Raymond Floyd.

“The distance he hits it, as straight as he hits it, we all wonder how he ever loses a golf tournament,” says Jack Nicklaus. “I don’t think all that many people understand how straight a driver he really is. Dustin’s a pretty darn straight driver for a guy who hits it as far as he hits it. And he’s got a really good short game.”

“He’s an amazing athlete,” Tiger Woods said after Johnson won the Masters. “He’s one of the first guys to ever bring athleticism to our sport,” high praise from the man credited with taking golf fitness to an accelerated level. Woods also lauded Johnson’s acumen for putting bad shots behind him. “D.J. has an amazing ability to stay calm in tough moments. We all know as past champions how hard it is and the emotions we have to deal with out there. There’s no one more suited to that than D.J.”

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Dustin and Paulina showing American pride at the 2016 Ryder Cup. (Photo/Mike Ehrmann/PGA of America/Getty Images)

Anyone who has played golf, from hacker to scratch, knows the feeling of the mind wrecking the body—a bad putt or chunked chip that invades the brain and remains there on the next tee box. Johnson has been praised for his ability to let the bad ones go. “Shit, I hit bad shots all the time,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t let it bother me. I hit it, try to find it and I hit it again.”

Today, Johnson is playing the best golf of his life. His decisive Masters victory is even more impressive given that he tested positive for Covid-19 on October 13, one month before the start of the tournament. While his case was mild (“I felt like I had a cold for a couple of days”) it took time for him to get back to 100 percent. Luckily, he was the only member of his family to get sick.

He was never better than his November performance at Augusta, and he’s been very good his entire career, but greatness eluded him in his earlier years. He’s had some high-profile misses on golf’s biggest stages, finishing second in majors five times, sometimes letting victory slip away. He was leading the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010 only to fall out of contention on Sunday with an 82. Two months later at the PGA Championship he finished in what seemed like a tie for the lead, destined for a playoff, but a two-stroke penalty dropped him into a tie for fifth. Perhaps the toughest miss was the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, where he had a chance to win his first major with an eagle putt on the 18th. Two putts would have tied him for first, causing a playoff. Instead, three putts later, he was in second.

Watching that drama was the greatest hockey player ever, Wayne Gretzky, father of Johnson’s fiancée Paulina. “When he didn’t get a tie at Chambers Bay, I think it was a real turning point in his life,” says Gretzky. The Great One also calls it “one of the only times I really gave him advice.” Johnson, he says, was going to leave without facing the press after the three putt. “I said, ‘Dustin, you gotta give these guys 10 minutes of your time.’ ” Johnson faced the reporters, worked through the tough questions and then flew with the Gretzkys out to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for a vacation. “He played 21 straight days with us,” says Gretzky. “That would be like me going and playing hockey after game seven of the Stanley Cup. That’s how much he loves golf.”

Gretzky saw the potential for Johnson to do more earlier in his career, and pushed him to not be happy with one victory a year. “He’s such a great athlete,” says Gretzky. “He’s at such a high level, his mindset should be to win every week.” The loss at Chambers pushed Johnson to do better. “As great as he was,” says Gretzky, “his dedication level went to a whole new level.”

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After he won the 2020 Masters, Dustin holds the Masters Trophy. (Photo/Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Gretzky, a passionate golfer who carries a 10 handicap, has spent a lot of time with Johnson. They met in 2010 at the ADT Golf Skills Challenge, competing on different teams. Gretzky was the only one in the group who was not a golf pro. After that, Johnson was paired with actress Janet Jones (Wayne’s wife) in a Pro-Am, and Johnson and his agent came to the Gretzky house for dinner afterward. “I went and had dinner at the house,” says Johnson. “Once we met we became friends.” He met Paulina at that dinner. “Me and Paulina, we were friends for a while before we started dating—a few years.” Today they are engaged, with two young boys. “The rest was sort of history,” says Gretzky.

Paulina plays golf “about 10 times a year,” says Johnson. “She’s actually pretty dang good for someone who doesn’t play or definitely doesn’t practice.” Johnson plays more often with her father, including outings at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Johnson is gracious when talking about the Great One’s golf game: “He could be better if he wanted to be, but he’s just fine where he is. He just enjoys being out there playing. As he says ‘What’s practice?’ I think he practiced enough hockey.”

Johnson gives Gretzky more credit for helping him than Gretzky admits. “Just spending so much time with him and getting to be around him, listening to the stories, watching how he handles himself—that’s where I think I’ve learned the most from Wayne,” he says. “I’m obviously very fortunate, because he’s one of the greatest ever to play any sport. I think that’s been very, very helpful and just learned so many things from him.”

Gretzky swelled with pride when Johnson won at Augusta, and marveled at his emotional interview. “That was the real Dustin,” says Gretzky. “He’s a special athlete. And a special man.”

Dealing with reporters was never Johnson’s favorite part of the game, especially in his younger days. “For me, always the hardest thing was the press. But as I get older, as I do it more and more, I get more comfortable with it,” he says. “Before, I used to dread doing the press, but now it’s more like I try to embrace it and enjoy it.” He also doesn’t enjoy colder weather, but only when he practices. He and Paulina live in Jupiter, Florida. He moved there from Myrtle Beach about 10 years ago, looking for milder weather to facilitate his practice. “I’m a fair weather golfer, especially if I’m practicing. It got harder and harder for me to go out and practice when it was cold and windy.” While he has a distaste for practicing in the cold (or relative cold) he says he actually looks forward to bad weather come tournament time. “I love playing in nasty weather, but that’s in a tournament. I don’t like practicing in it. Half the guys are bitching and moaning, and they’re out of it before we even start. And I like it, I like the challenge. If you look at all the really good players, Tiger, anybody when the conditions get really tough, that’s when the really good ones stand out.”

Where Johnson has long stood out is on the tee box. He’s been a big hitter for his entire pro career, ranked in the Top 10 for driving distance since his debut year. He averages 314.4 yards off the tee, putting many par 4s within reach, and he ranked second in eagles in 2020, with 14. The way he and other big hitters crush drives has ignited talk about dialing back the golf ball, something he dismisses. “It’s not like we’re making the game too easy. This game is still very difficult,” he says. “If you can hit it far and straight it’s still a skill to be able to do that, and you still have to make a number. For me, it’s not like we’re dominating golf courses. It’s all conditions. No matter what golf course you’re playing, if it’s firm and fast and there’s some rough, it’s going to play difficult.” Then he expresses that nonchalance for which he’s become known—this debate is not keeping him up at night. “Obviously, they can do whatever they want, but in my eyes the game is still very, very hard. I don’t think there’s anything we’re doing that makes the game too easy. The harder you swing, the further you hit it—and the bigger your misses are.”

Viewing the Instagram feed of Johnson and Paulina Gretzky opens a window on a fun life. They celebrated Paulina’s 32nd birthday in Saint Barth’s in December, replete with a parade of people carrying Dom Perignon Champagne bottles with luminescent labels. The Bahamas paradise of Baker’s Bay is another favored spot. The couple gets away often, typically with friends, and sometimes Johnson finds himself at odds with his buddies about how to relax. “Usually we go [to Baker’s Bay] with some friends. Of course, all my friends, all they want to do is play golf, where I’m on vacation and I don’t want to play golf at all.” Rather than play golf in his downtime, he prefers time on the water. “I want to be on the boat, whether it’s just fishing or diving.”

On rare occasions, his downtime includes a fine cigar. “I like ’em, but it’s not a regular thing. I’m sure as I age I’ll probably appreciate them more,” he says. “Very occasionally I’ll have one, but just not a whole lot.”

At this point in his life, time is his biggest issue. He has golf courses on his bucket list, but he won’t scratch them off anytime soon. “I’ve never played Pine Valley. I’d like to play there eventually. But for me, it’s hard, I travel and I play golf for a living, so for me to travel and play a golf course just for fun, that’s not fun for me,” he says. “Maybe, obviously, a little later in life.”

For now, his schedule is packed. His January included a tournament in Hawaii, a vacation in Colorado and the start of a trip to the Middle East to compete in the Saudi International (a European Tour event) in early February, which he won. In addition to the golf and the appearances, there’s also one thing looming on his to-do list—create a menu. As Masters champion, it’s his job to host the Masters Club dinner the Tuesday before the Masters returns to Augusta in April. If you think getting into Rao’s is tough, that’s nothing compared with winning a seat at this dinner, commonly called the Champion’s Dinner, open to Masters winners and high-level members of Augusta National. Dinner attire is jacket required, in a particular shade of green. The defending champion plans out the menu. Johnson will probably make an exception this Masters and not order sandwiches.

“That’s something that’s on my list of things to do in the very near future,” he says. “It’s something I look forward to.” That, and defending his title on the golf course he dreamt about since he was a young boy.

Golf

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