If Dustin Johnson makes golf look a little too easy sometimes, well, there's a reason for that. "I think he is the best athlete ever to play professional golf," says Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade's vice president of PGA Tour operations. "He has almost freakish natural talent. He's the kind of guy who can do anything. Give him a basketball, he can dunk it in bare feet. Give him a baseball, he can throw it 90 miles per hour...." Johnson's father, Scott, picks up the thread. "He can bowl 200 games all night long," he says. "Don't shoot pool for money around him, either." Johnson's brother, A.J., adds, "He can tear it up on the water. On a wakeboard he can jump the wake, easily. Last summer I saw him get 10 feet of air on a Jet Ski. There was a 60-foot yacht going about 30 mph, and it was kicking up a wake with six-foot waves. Dustin launched off that like it was the X Games."
The ball speed coming off Johnson's driver peaks at close to 190 mph. The PGA Tour average is around 165; the young Tiger Woods topped out in the low 180s (with less advanced equipment). But there are other ways to quantify the physical gifts of this lithe, long-limbed, 6'4", 205-pound 26-year-old. Johnson's trainer, Randy Myers, says, "Dustin's standing broad jump puts him in the 93rd percentile among NBA players. His time in the three-cone drill"a mini obstacle course that measures speed and agility"puts him in the 80th percentile among NFL skill-position players. I've been doing this for 23 years, and he's the best athlete I've ever seen.
"I work with a lot of elite college programs, and the kids coming up all want to be as physical as Dustin. He's now the benchmark. What he does to a golf ball, the way he moves, the way people respond to his physicalityDustin's a rock star."
There can be a downside to being such a natural, which Johnson acknowledges. Sort of. "I could probably work a little bit harder," he says with a grin, "but I do work hard."
"He's b.s.'ing you," says Butch Harmon, Johnson's swing coach for the past year. "His work ethic has improved, yes, because he didn't really do anything before. He has always relied on tremendous natural ability to carry him through. It's taken him all the way to being a top 10 player. But every other guy in the top 10 outworks him."
Last month at Doral, the gruff, old-school Harmon got in the face of his young, laid-back protÃ©gÃ©. "We had a come-to-Jesus conversation about getting his personal life in order," says Harmon. "I was very blunt. I told him he needs to figure out who he is and how committed he is to utilizing his talent. And that when he's playing tournaments he needs to eliminate some of the, shall we say, extracurricular activities. He's a fun-loving guy, I realize that. But there's a time to play and a time to work. He needs to understand that a little better."
In 2010 Johnson emerged as the game's most tantalizing talent, winning the third and fourth tournaments of his career and finishing fourth on the money list ($4.47 million), along the way overpowering golf courses like the young Nicklaus did. More than a quarter of Johnson's drives traveled more than 320 yards, tops on Tour, and he also led the league in eagles per hole and finished second in the par-breakers stat, making birdie or better 22.97% of the time. The final-round 82 that a flustered Johnson shot to kick away the U.S. Open was redeemed by 71 sterling holes at the PGA Championship. The penalty he incurred on the final hole for grounding his club in an ill-defined bunkertragically costing Johnson a spot in the Martin Kaymer--Bubba Watson playoffwas easily chalked up to a weird course setup and bad crowd control. But a rocky start to the 2011 season has led to some revisionist history, as Johnson's narrative has increasingly become defined by carelessness.
In February he was penalized for being late to his first-round tee time in Los Angeles, a gaffe that drew even more attention when Johnson's caddie, Bobby Brown, subsequently had an on-course confrontation with bulldoggish Golf Channel reporter Jim Gray. A couple of days later the Internet was flooded with a video released by the South Carolina Highway Patrol showing Johnson struggling with a field sobriety test, dating to a DUI arrest in March 2009 in Myrtle Beach. (He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of reckless driving and was fined $445.) Johnson's love life has also made headlines, as in January he had a high-profile dalliance with LPGA starlet Natalie Gulbis. This followed a breakup with his off-again, on-again college girlfriend, Amanda Caulder. They're back together, and in February they moved into a stunning $3.7 million waterfront home in Jupiter, Fla.
Even with all this turbulence Johnson tied for third in San Diego and was second at Doral, all the while struggling with a chilly putter. "It was a cold winter in Myrtle so I didn't get to practice much," he says. "My speed's been off but it's getting better." That Johnson is rounding into form with the Masters on the horizon is no accident. "Everything we've done, going back to the off-season, was with Augusta in mind," says Harmon.
In two previous trips to the Masters, Johnson has finished 38th and 30th, turning Augusta National into a par-68 by decimating the par-5s. With his second shot he has reached the 510-yard 13th hole with a nine-iron, the 530-yard 15th with an eight-iron, the 575-yard 2nd with a six-iron, the steeply uphill 570-yard 8th with a four-iron. Little wonder that Kaymer, the world No. 1, has already anointed Johnson as one of this year's favorites, and that defending champ Phil Mickelson says, "There's no reason Dustin shouldn't win more than one Masters in his career."
Clearly Johnson has the physical tools. But Augusta National is the sport's most exacting stage, demanding much more than simply titanium-denting pyrotechnics. If Johnson is to prevail at the Masters, he will have to summon new levels of discipline and determination and clear-eyed thinking. Whether he can do so is of a piece with the larger questions that now hang over his career. Says Harmon, parroting the naysayers, "Does he want it bad enough? I think so. But it's up to Dustin to prove it."
Johnson has been afloat more or less since birth. His family ran a commercial marina on Lake Mary in Columbia, S.C., and when Dustin was a baby his father used to strap a crib into the back of his bass boat and take him along on fishing expeditions. According to family lore, the motion of the boat rocked Johnson into a deep sleep.
He inherited more than just a love of the water from his athletic family. His 6'4" grandfather, Art Whisnant, was an all-conference basketball player at South Carolina in the early 1960s. Scott Johnson played football, basketball and baseball in high school, and his son proved to be just as versatile an athlete; growing up Dustin was a goal-scoring machine in soccer, a shortstop and pitcher in baseball and a rare point-center in basketball, bringing the ball up the court and patrolling the middle on defense. "No joke, Dustin could have gotten a Division I scholarship in three or four sports," says A.J., who played three seasons as a shooting guard for the College of Charleston. "He was that good at everything he did. But he liked golf the best."