Dustin Johnson Used to Play for Himself, But Now He's Playing With a Purpose

Tuesday December 6th, 2016
Johnson has learned about loyalty from the Gretzkys. DJ, Paulina and little Tatum often spend time at Wayne's home in Los Angeles.
Ben Van Hook

In his free-swinging, hard-living days, Dustin Johnson, GOLF's Player of the Year, played for himself. Now, with the support of his fiancée, Paulina, and guidance from Wayne Gretzky, he plays with a purpose, a family at his side, and a U.S. Open already in the bag. [This story first appeared in the January 2017 issue of GOLF.]

On a warm October day, Dustin Johnson is playing a casual round of golf with Tristan Gretzky, a slender 15- year-old who is the youngest of Wayne and Janet's five children, a brood that includes Johnson's glamorous fiancée, Paulina. The sun is beginning to drop behind the foothills that frame Sherwood Country Club, the Southern California enclave the Gretzkys call home and to which Johnson was recently bestowed an honorary membership. Tristan has pretty much grown up at Sherwood, and he mixes easily with both the glittering membership and the dutiful workforce that serves them. Not for nothing does Johnson call his future brother-in-law "the Mayor." With his angular swing, the kid kills the ball, often launching drives within 20 yards of Johnson's game-changing clouts. On the par-3 12th hole, which plays 186 yards, the reigning U.S. Open champ has honors, and he smooths an 8-iron pin-high. Then Tristan is over the ball, about to hit, when Johnson interrupts: "8 or 9?"

"9."

"You need an 8."

"I was gonna hit it hard and…"

"It's an 8."

Tristan trudges back to his bag, pulls more club, and then plays a lovely draw that settles just past the flag. Leaving the tee, Johnson, 32, is laughing at his protégé's familiar impetuous-ness. "S---, when I was his age, I would've tried to kill a 9, too," he says. "And if you don't hit it absolutely perfect, it will come up short in the bunker every time. You get older, you realize you don't have to always make it so hard on yourself."

PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes with DJ, Paulina & Their Son Tatum

Yes, Dustin Johnson is now molding America's youth. Once known for a wild side on and off the course, Johnson has matured into a dedicated family man and, now, a player for the ages. After winning three big-time tournaments in 2016 (including his first major) and taking the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average on Tour, he was an easy choice for GOLF's Player of the Year.

Among the tangible golf-related reasons he has emerged as the game's most overpowering force are an upgraded wedge game, more consistent putting and his new dedication to playing a fade off the tee. But Johnson's growth is more personal than professional, and much of it can be traced to the loving embrace of the Gretzkys. What has brought him to this point is Paulina's loyalty through the hard times and the responsibilities of being an involved father to the couple's young son, Tatum.

Johnson has benefited greatly from the wisdom of Wayne, the greatest hockey player of all time. Gretzky family friends have become his comrades too, and when he's not on Tour he pegs it with them nearly every day in sprawling seven- and eightsomes, the U.S. Open champion taking on businessmen with handicaps in the mid-teens. Paulina's sibs have become kin, and the value of these relationships can be seen most clearly in Johnson's bond with Tristan, who says, "I was a baseball player until he came around, and then I tried to copy him. I still do. He's a pretty great role model. He knows I have a coach, so the only direct advice he's ever given me is, "Swing hard." Mostly I learn by watching him."

"I learn from him, too," Johnson says. "The way he treats people and carries himself. When I was a kid I wasn't that polite, put it that way."

Johnson grew up outside Columbia, South Carolina. He was in high school when his parents, Scott and Kandee, acrimoniously divorced. Dustin chose to live with his father, and he skipped so much school he was kicked off the golf team. Some of his friends ran with the wrong crowd, and Johnson had a few scrapes with the law. Well into his pro career, intimates were still worried about him. "I don't know if Dustin ever 100 percent trusts someone," his college coach, Allen Terrell, told GolfWorld in 2009.

If golf is the loneliest game, Johnson has found something larger than himself to play for. "You can't get this far by yourself," he says. "I'm so lucky to have the people around me that I do. To have their love and support no matter what—that means the world to me. Do I want to make them proud? For sure. Winning is a lot more fun when you have people to share it with."

***

Long before he courted Paulina, Dustin charmed another female Gretzky. Wayne's wife, Janet, is an avid golfer, and in 2009, at Sherwood, she and Dustin were paired at the Hero World Challenge pro-am. Afterward, Janet invited her new friend to a family dinner. Dustin and Paulina had undeniable chemistry, but both were in relationships, so, she says, "We became good friends. Actually, my whole family became friends with Dustin—my brothers and parents saw him a lot more than I did." It wasn't until the 2012 World Challenge that Dustin and Paulina had their first date. "Well," she adds, "I don't know if you can call it a date since my dad tagged along."

"That's how it goes in our family," Wayne says. "Janet and I go out to eat, and we somehow always wind up with seven or eight people at the table. Everyone is invited."

After dinner, Paulina shooed away her old man, and she and Dustin stayed up late talking. "Then I joined him in Hawaii"—at Kapalua, in January 2013—"and we've been together since."

They made an irresistible couple, two physically perfect humans who spent a lot of time goofing off on watercraft, the fun playing out for a rapturous audience on Paulina's Instagram feed. By August 2013 they were engaged. Johnson had enjoyed a lively bachelorhood, so it was presumed that settling down would aid his maturation as a golfer; this notion accelerated when, in the spring of 2014, the happy couple discovered they were pregnant. But that August they faced a defining crisis: Dustin took a six-month leave from the Tour to address what he called "personal challenges." Working with a life coach and several clinicians, he gained hard-won self-knowledge and new mechanisms for coping with stress. Still, the key lesson might have been that during the toughest time of his life, he had the unconditional support of Paulina and her family.

Most of his leave was spent at Sherwood or the Gretzkys' favorite getaway, Gozzer Ranch Golf Club, on Lake Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a low-key place where Johnson once shot a 63 while barefoot. He played golf nearly every day with Wayne or Janet or both, with Paulina often along for company. "I think for a long time Dustin had been struggling with the question, "Who loves me and believes in me, not as a golfer but as a person?"," says his trainer Joey Diovisalvi. "In that period of reflection he came to discover that Paulina and her family were his sanctuary. In the hardest of times they had his back. Love became the defining thing in his life, and when you're finally not afraid to love back, that's a life-changing shift."

Paulina was awed by Dustin's Oakmont performance, and the U.S. Open trophy itself.
Darren Carroll/SI

Tatum was born in January 2015, the first grandchild for Wayne and Janet, the first nephew for Paulina's siblings. The love among all of them grew. Johnson returned to the Tour a few weeks after his son's birth and quickly returned to his winning ways, taking the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral. But three months later, at Chambers Bay, he suffered the most wrenching loss of his career, three-putting the 72nd green to hand the U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth. The entire Gretzky clan watched helplessly from a sand hill behind the green. "We live and die with every one of his shots," Wayne says. But after everything he'd been through, Johnson had a new resolve and greater accountability. That night, the family retreated to a rental home to gather their belongings; they'd be flying to Gozzer for a previously scheduled trip. Johnson insisted on carrying out all of their suitcases and loading them into SUVs. When Wayne expressed concern about Johnson's back, the golfer shot back, "After the way I played today, this is what I deserve."

The next morning, at 7 a.m., Wayne teed off at Gozzer with his cronies, a sprawling group that includes Mike Mattivi, a 16-handicapper who is also a part of the regular games at Sherwood. Johnson said he would join them on the first tee, but no one was surprised when he didn't show. They were in the second fairway when a ball whistled over their heads. "We all knew it was Dustin," Mattivi says. "He comes roaring up and says, "I told y'all to wait for me!" After what he had just been through at Chambers Bay, I was shocked. Most guys would spend a week in bed, hugging their pillow, but this kid loves the game so much he didn't want to miss out on the fun."

The second hole at Gozzer Ranch is a 589-yard par 5; Johnson smashed an 8-iron to four feet for an eagle try. "He's standing there waiting for us to give it to him," Mattivi says. "And one of our buddies goes, "Dustin, that would normally be good, but since you missed one about that length 12 hours ago, you're gonna have to putt it." Dustin laughed so damn hard. He knows we love him no matter how many 4-footers he might miss."

***

Johnson can still recall the first time he tried to play a fade with his driver in competition—the 72nd hole of the 2010 BMW Championship. It worked, and he won the tournament. But that was his third season on Tour, and in the years that followed he continued to play a screaming draw almost exclusively, despite the protestations of his swing coaches, Butch Harmon and Claude Harmon III. Johnson was struggling with his driver during practice rounds at the 2015 Tour Championship, so the Harmons convinced him to try a fade, which, it must be noted, was the preferred shot shape of Jack Nicklaus. It was a revelation. Johnson's misses were tighter, and he could let the club go with more freedom. He became so enamored with the fade that from that tournament forward it's pretty much all he's played. The first building block was in place.

A few weeks after the 2015 season ended, Johnson met with Diovisalvi, and they talked about his goals for 2016. "I remember clearly, we were sitting on the floor, and he said he wanted to be the No. 1 player in the world," the trainer says. "Beginning that morning, we worked out seven days a week for three months straight, and he didn't miss a single workout. And not once did he give less than maximum effort. People think Dustin coasts on natural talent, but he has chased greatness really hard."

Propelling Johnson was a new sense of urgency that began with Tatum's birth. Having the game taken away from him for six months fed the fire, and his desire was only stoked by the near-miss at Chambers Bay. All along, Wayne had been whispering in his ear. "I don't know golf," says the NHL legend, an 11-handicapper, "but I know sports. There are great talents at every level; what separates the superstars is preparation and commitment. The notion that I'm some kind of guru to Dustin is overblown. He was a top-10 player long before I met him. But if I've helped in any way it's with the message that to be the best he has to pay the price."

Another foundational moment came at the Tour stop in L.A., in early 2016. Johnson's inter-mediate wedge game had always been middling, an inconvenient truth given that he leaves himself the shortest clubs into many par 4s. On the range at Riviera, following the Wednesday pro-am, he borrowed a TrackMan and started dialing in his wedge distances. Johnson finished fourth that week and saw a sharp increase in the accuracy of his wedge play. He immediately bought his own TrackMan and developed a precise system: "A half shot with my 60 [degree wedge] goes 85 yards. I've got a three-quarter swing that goes 95, and a stock swing goes 105. With my 52, my half goes 105, three-quarter 115, and so on. Now I trust the swings and I trust the numbers, so all I have to do is execute the shot." By the season's end he would be fourth on Tour in proximity to the hole from 50 to 125 yards (up from 53rd in 2015).

The pieces were now in place, and the rest of the Tour could feel something ominous brewing. "At Doral, Adam Scott pulled me aside and said, "Your boy is so good it's a joke,"" Claude Harmon says. "He was like, "If DJ ever figures this thing out we're all playing for second.""

At the U.S. Open at Oakmont, all the hard work and heartache was distilled into an awe-inspiring unleashing of talent and will. In overpowering golf's scariest course, Johnson put on one of the greatest displays of driving in the game's history. Even more impressive was how he kept his head on the back nine after the USGA left him in limbo with the threat of a post-round penalty because his ball had twitched as he stood over it on the fifth green. "DJ never gets the credit for how mentally tough he is," Claude Harmon says. "What happened to him at Pebble Beach, at Whistling Straits, at Royal St. George's, at Chambers Bay—no one comes back from all that. Yet somehow he did. At Oakmont, in the most stressful situation imaginable, he showed the world he has what it takes."

Some of the credit must go to Austin Johnson, a former college basketball player who has the same jock swagger as his older brother. When Dustin decided to make a caddie change at the end of 2013, the conventional wisdom on Tour was that he needed a grizzled hard-ass to keep him in line. In fact, Johnson wanted to take more ownership of his decision-making, so he invited Austin, his best friend, to man his bag. They won their second event together, in China. Afterward Dustin said, "I wasn't going to let those guys beat me and my little bro."

The collective joy that came with their triumph was obvious in the moments afterward, in the Oakmont locker room. Diovisalvi held Tatum so Paulina could work her phone and dab at the tears that wouldn't stop flowing. "He's our rock," she said. "And he keeps evolving. I wouldn't say he's growing up—he's becoming who he's supposed to be." When Wayne checked in via FaceTime, his voice was thick with emotion, and about the only thing he could choke out was, "I'm so proud of all of you."

***

Two weeks after the U.S. Open, Johnson won another big one, at Firestone, and his team convened for a steak dinner. "Huge pieces of meat were brought out," Claude Harmon says, "and bottles of wine, and Dustin had fish and drank water. He doesn't drink alcohol on tournament weeks anymore, and he eats cleaner than any athlete I've been around. His commitment is total."

"The success I've had," Johnson says, "makes me want to work even harder."

If he's wondering how to follow up a career year, Wayne has a blueprint: "If I scored 50 goals in a season, I wanted 70 the next year. If I got 70, I wanted 90. Never, ever settle. I've told Dustin he has to be more like Tiger. I don't mean he has to be Tiger—you only get a few athletes like that a century. But part of what made Tiger Tiger was relentlessness. Dustin just won three tournaments and a major. That's a great year. Now go win five tournaments and two majors. I want him to see that only he can put limits on himself."

To keep distractions at bay, Dustin and Paulina have moved their wedding to late 2017 at the earliest, and he has turned down many business opportunities. This off-season they have concentrated on building their dream house in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The decor, he says, will be "super clean, white, but warm." He is overseeing the details of a six-car garage. Johnson has always been a car guy, but these days he mostly helms a sedate sedan. "When I have Tatum in the car, my hands are at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock," he says.

Family now comes first for Johnson. At the Ryder Cup he let Paulina's brothers Trevor and Ty wear some of his Team USA swag. And back at Sherwood, the bond with Tristan is deep. At one point, after the kid nails a gorgeous tee shot, Johnson says, "I want to be like you someday."

In fact, Johnson is all grown up now, and so is his game.

Wayne Gretzky became, and remains, an essential support in Johnson's life.
Robert Beck/SI

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