Despite a couple of major mishaps, Dustin Johnson motors on

April 2, 2011

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 physicality—Dustin’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 protégé. “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 bunker—tragically costing Johnson a spot in the Martin Kaymer–Bubba Watson playoff—was 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.”

Scott Johnson pursued a career as a teaching professional at Columbia’s Mid Carolina Club, and under his tutelage Dustin quickly became a schoolboy legend around the state. Many of his deeds have the ring of myth, except they’re true. As a seventh-grader Johnson played varsity golf for Dutch Fork High. One day he shot a 64 at Golden Hills Golf & Country Club in Lexington. It would have been a course record, but the club refused to recognize it because he had accepted a gimme on a short putt early in the round. “Shoot, I didn’t care,” Johnson says. But he came back the next day and putted out everything, shooting another 64. In eighth grade, on the day of the end-of-the-season banquet for the golf squad, Johnson and his teammates played a quick nine holes at the Club at Rawls Creek in Irmo. He shot a sporty 28. “Coach told me to forget about the banquet and try for the course record,” says Johnson. He tweaked his back on the second nine, hit three balls out-of-bounds . . . and still got home in 35 for a 63 and another course record.

Johnson’s rep only became more outsized in college, at Coastal Carolina. There was the time during practice when he made an ace and a double eagle—on back-to-back holes—using the same club, a four-iron. Says Allen Terrell, the coach at Coastal Carolina, “Against Duke he chipped in on the last hole to give the team a win. At Augusta State his senior year he shot 30 on the back nine so we could win again. I can’t even remember all the big shots. He made so many important final-hole birdies for us.”

Johnson’s flair for the dramatic—and his awesome power—captured the imagination of the golfing world even as he was toiling for a small-time college program. His agent, David Winkle, recalls one particular moment when he was scouting Johnson: “It was a 330-yard par-4, big dogleg left, and his two playing partners hit their best drivers well short of the green. Dustin hit this absolutely majestic tee ball that fell out of the sky about 15 feet from the flag. I was behind the green, and as he’s walking off I congratulated him on a great shot. And he says, ‘Dude, it was a perfect three-wood.’ I remember thinking very clearly at that moment, Someday this kid is going to own Augusta National.”

He remained utterly unfazed even as the spotlight got hotter. In September 2007 he represented the U.S. at the Walker Cup at Royal County Down. In the first match of the competition, Johnson was in a foursomes match against Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, a boy wonder with a huge home field advantage. Terrell was standing by the tee. “Rory hits a great drive and the crowd goes crazy,” he says. “It takes a while for everyone to settle down. Finally Dustin steps up and just smashes one. The people jump back like a freight train is roaring through there. They had never seen anything like it. It was stone silence. We walked off that drive at 403 [yards].”

Johnson turned pro shortly thereafter and breezed through Q school to earn a place on the PGA Tour. Near the end of his rookie year he was in danger of losing his card before he came out of nowhere to win the Turning Stone Resort Championship in Verona, N.Y. In 2009 he won again, at Pebble Beach, and had two more top five finishes, setting the stage for his breakthrough last year. The down-home Whisnant has a simple explanation for his grandson’s seamless rise to the brink of superstardom: “He’s always done what he needs to do when it needs to be done.”

On a sunny afternoon last October, Johnson was hanging out in his Myrtle Beach starter home, a relatively modest pad in a quiet development far from the Grand Strand. Amanda Caulder was there too, barefoot, in shorts and a T-shirt, a vision of willowy loveliness, which she comes by naturally; her lunch on this day, at a sandwich shop in a minimall, was a BLT with extra cheese, on a croissant, with a fried egg, washed down by a cinnamon roll. Sliding around on the hardwood floors and launching himself onto the furniture and dispensing copious amounts of love was Max, the Old English sheepdog that Johnson got for Amanda as a present when she graduated from Coastal Carolina with a degree in health sciences in 2008. (On a coffee table was the book Food to Live By and a guide to planting your own organic vegetable garden.)

Caulder sat at the dining room table, sorting through teetering piles of mail. It should be noted that Johnson’s galleries tend to skew female. At this year’s Pebble Beach National Pro-Am he was ambling between the 16th green and the 17th tee when a lascivious fortysomething woman catcalled, “Seeeeeexxxxxy.” Johnson simply smiled and kept walking. His amateur partner, Joe Rice, said, “That’s not the first time something like that has happened.” Caulder has come across a few suggestive pieces of fan mail. Sitting at the dining room table she said, “This one letter began, ‘My boyfriend and I followed you in Akron. We recently broke up. . . .’ The girl included her phone number, so I called her. I said, ‘Hello, I’m Dustin’s assistant and his girlfriend, and I wanted to let you know we received your letter.'” Then Amanda sent the young woman an autographed golf ball.

The most treasured correspondence Johnson has received came in the wake of the PGA Championship fiasco. It was from Byron Nelson’s widow, Peggy. “You handled the situation at the PGA in such a wonderfully gentlemanly, sportsmanlike way,” she wrote. “Byron would have been proud of you. I’m still seething with righteous indignation.” She also included a $300 check, passing on a debt of gratitude that extends back to the 1939 Hershey Open. As Peggy explained in the letter, Byron was leading that tournament when he piped a seemingly perfect drive to the blind 15th fairway. Inexplicably the ball could not be found, even after a long search by the gallery. Nelson was forced to declare the ball lost and re-tee, eating the two strokes that ultimately sent him skidding to fourth place. Weeks later an anonymous letter arrived, in which a remorseful fan said that his lady friend had cluelessly picked up the ball and put it in her purse, which the letter writer didn’t discover until the train ride home. Included was a check for $300, the difference between first- and fourth-place money.

“It’s a pretty cool story,” says Johnson, with typical understatement.

In the wake of the PGA—not to mention the final-round blowup at the U.S. Open—Johnson said over and over that the disappointment lasted only a matter of hours and that there was no emotional scar tissue. It was hard to believe, but those closest to Johnson marvel at his ability to move on.

“I’ve never, ever seen him upset about anything,” says Whisnant.

“He’s the most laid-back guy in the world,” says A.J. Johnson. “Nothing bothers him. I flew home with him from the Open, and by the time we landed in South Carolina it was like nothing had happened. I’m pretty sure I was way more disappointed than he was.”

Yet this equanimity has been tested so far in 2011. The drama began in January at the season opener in Maui, when Gulbis followed Johnson during the third round. The crowds are always light at Kapalua, and, frankly, Gulbis was hard to miss in a very mini skirt. The TV cameras found her on the back nine, but Golf Channel made the editorial decision not to show her on the telecast. A couple of photographers also spotted her. I was waiting near the clubhouse to speak with Johnson after his round when Gulbis sashayed past. She gave me a hug and we chatted for about 20 minutes, with Gulbis talking openly about her budding relationship with Johnson. They had first hung out when both were competing in the Wendy’s 3-Tour Challenge in November. Gulbis said she traveled to the ensuing Skills Challenge and Shark Shootout to see Johnson. By December rumors had begun to swirl about a possible romance, but it had never been confirmed. In finally doing so in Hawaii, Gulbis asked not to be quoted extensively, saying, “I’ll let Dustin handle our p.r.” Then she bid adieu to meet him at his hotel.

Reached by phone in his room a little while later, Johnson said he was busy and asked for a return call in an hour. He never picked up again.

I was not eager to publicize their private lives, but a coupling of one of the Tour’s most telegenic young stars with one of the planet’s most attractive female athletes is not an easy secret to keep. Complicating matters was the intimacy of the event; staying at the same resort as Johnson were numerous writers, agents, caddies and Tour staffers. Since the news was bound to break, I figured it might as well come from me. My story was posted that evening on, and almost instantly the golf world was atwitter. During the final round Golf Channel showed Gulbis in the gallery, and then, after the round, Johnson announced he was withdrawing from the ensuing week’s Sony Open and heading home to South Carolina.

The speculation and innuendo were so unrelenting that five days later Johnson did a phone interview with The Associated Press, telling Doug Ferguson that he and Caulder had broken up months earlier. “For people to say I went home to repair the relationship is completely false,” Johnson said. “We’re not in a relationship.”

A person close to Johnson confirms the timing, saying, “That’s how those two are. They’ve broken up and gotten back together a bunch of times through the years.”

As for Gulbis, Johnson told the AP, “Yes, me and Natalie have spent some time together, but we’re not in a relationship. We’re not dating.”

Whether this was merely semantics or a substantive difference in the perception of their time together, Gulbis was upset about the comments—a member of her inner circle and more than one of her LPGA friends contacted me to register her displeasure.

Three days after the AP story came out, Johnson, as defending champ, winged in to Pebble Beach for a long-scheduled media day. I went to see him, hoping to smooth things over. He’s a hip-hop fan, and in a quiet moment I invoked the prevailing patois, saying, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to blow up your spot.”

Johnson shrugged. “Hey, s— happens,” he said.

Moral of the story? If Johnson can get over Natalie Gulbis that easily, it really is conceivable that blowing a U.S. Open and a PGA Championship isn’t that big a deal to him.

When Johnson was nearly five minutes late to his tee time at the Northern Trust Open, Brown, his caddie, took the blame, claiming he had gotten the time wrong. But Johnson didn’t help himself when he admitted that he never reads the tee sheets. This echoed his comment at the PGA Championship, that he hadn’t paid attention to the local-rules announcements taped all over the locker room reminding players that even the scruffiest sandy areas at Whistling Straits were to be played as hazards and thus clubs could not be grounded in them. Johnson has been criticized for a lack of attention to detail—an exasperated Kaymer tells SI, “You should be able to check your tee time by yourself”—but it is not sweating the small stuff that has gotten Johnson this far. There is an almost Zen-like simplicity to the way he approaches the game. “I’m hardly ever unsure of what shot I want to hit,” says Johnson, who plays as fast as anyone on Tour. “I never think about percentages. Only two things can happen: I hit a good shot or I hit a bad shot. So what the f—?”

Many of his colleagues—forever bogged down by mechanical thoughts and haunted by the repercussions of every swing—profess admiration for Johnson’s devil-may-care philosophy. Says Pat Perez, “I told Dustin, ‘Don’t try to get smart. Just do your thing and don’t listen to anybody. Stay with your routine and do what you do because it’s working.'”

With his manifest talent and effortless cool Johnson has drawn comparisons to Fred Couples, who may be the most popular player of the past quarter century. (There are also those who consider Couples a maddening underachiever.) But the elder statesman Johnson feels closest to is Mickelson. They met shortly after Johnson turned pro. He was in Carlsbad, Calif., being wooed by equipment manufacturers, and TaylorMade’s Sbarbaro, a college teammate of Mickelson’s, set up a game at the Bridges, Phil’s home course.

“I got to warn you, Phil, he’s pretty long,” Sbarbaro said.

“We’ll see about that,” Mickelson woofed.

“On the 2nd hole I blew it about 50 yards by him,” says Johnson. “He wasn’t happy about that. I was 5 up at the turn. I think that got Phil’s attention.”

“Well, it was winter time and I hadn’t been playing much,” says Mickelson. “I think he’s failing to mention that I gave him a pretty good spanking on the back nine.”

“It’s been on ever since then,” says Johnson.

They have a standing Tuesday game at most big-time tournaments. A particularly epic tussle went down at the Players a few years ago. Johnson was 1 up when Mickelson made a 30-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole. Johnson topped him with a 15-footer. At the par-5 16th Mickelson jarred a big-breaking 50-footer for eagle. “Of course he’s talking s—,” Johnson says. “That’s what Phil does.” He then banged in his own 25-foot eagle putt to halve the hole. “You should have seen his face!” Johnson says. “You know how it’s a long walk to 17 tee? Oh, man, Phil was chirping the whole way.”

On the 18th hole Johnson drove into the trees but pulled off a “crazy-ass” recovery to save par and close out the match.

What were the stakes?

“A dollar.”

He managed to stifle a laugh for almost two seconds.

“What I love about Dustin,” says Mickelson, “is that he’s fearless on the golf course. He never backs down from a challenge.”

This pedal-to-the-metal ethos has turned Mickelson into the current king of Augusta, with three Masters victories in the last seven years. Harmon, who coaches both bombers, is encouraging Johnson to follow Mickelson’s blueprint. “The plan is to turn Dustin loose and let him go after it,” says Harmon. “Augusta is a not a place where you can play conservatively.”

“The more you play that golf course, the more you figure it out,” Johnson says. “I feel very comfortable there. I like all the tee shots. You can swing the driver and feel freed up. I like the greens. I like all the shots around the greens.”

But the fundamental question remains whether Johnson can keep his wits about him in the crucible of a major-championship Sunday. At last year’s U.S. Open finale he played with such breakneck haste that Harmon later made him watch a replay to stress the need to maintain a more thoughtful pace. Lost in the furor of the PGA penalty was the fact that Johnson arrived at the 72nd hole with a one-stroke lead but whipsawed his drive miles wide of the fairway, missed his approach on the short side and then couldn’t convert what he thought was a do-or-die seven-footer.

Johnson says he has learned his lessons. “I was in contention so many times last year I’ve come to understand what my body does in those situations. I’ve learned to control it. I simply have to relax, to move very slowly—or what I think is slow. Just take my time and almost enjoy the moment.”

Though Johnson didn’t win this year at San Diego or Doral, his coach still saw progress in the near misses. “He’s making very good decisions,” Harmon says. “He’s controlling his ball much better. He’s controlling his emotions too.”

There is other evidence of Johnson’s maturation, and not just his recent enrollment in correspondence classes to finish his college degree or the creation of an eponymous charitable foundation to support junior golf. After the tongue-lashing from Harmon, Johnson summoned his trainer to Florida for some grueling workouts. (He does leg presses of up to 550 pounds and bench-presses 185 pounds in sets of 15.) “He’s had a big-boy breakthrough,” says Myers. “He’s focused and working hard.” The move to Jupiter will only help. Myers spent 13 years at nearby PGA National and has aides to keep Johnson motivated. Harmon is building a teaching academy at the Floridian Golf Club, which has already extended Johnson a membership. (He’s also planning to play out of the Medalist Golf Club, which is Tiger Woods’s new home course, and the Bear’s Club, both Tour hotbeds.) “We’re going to be able to keep a better eye on him,” says Harmon.

On the home front Johnson seems to have again settled into a quiet domesticity with Caulder. While he was playing in L.A. and Tucson, she almost single-handedly moved them into their 7,860-square-foot dream house, which includes a home theater Johnson is equipping with three large TVs, to better monitor various sporting events. “I wanted everything to be settled for him when he got back home,” Caulder said in early March, while hanging out with Max in the vast stone-and-tile kitchen. Johnson had always dreamed of living on the water, and he’s already fond of hitting balls from the deck of his swimming pool into the wide Loxahatchee River. He’s in the process of purchasing two boats for his backyard dock: a 38-footer for fishing and a smaller, faster craft for wakeboarding. (On terra firma his vehicle of choice is a drop-top 1974 Pontiac Grand Ville, riding on 22-inch rims.)

“If the sun is out, I’ll be on the water every day, just chilling,” he says.

In 1992 Fred Couples won the Masters to get to No. 1, only to be overwhelmed by the hassle of it all. He never dared to fly so high again. Johnson is such a similarly mellow dude that it’s natural to wonder if he’s ready for all the hoopla that would come with a green jacket. The answer may have come back in Myrtle Beach, when he was blasting down the Intracoastal at the helm of a buddy’s boat. Over the roar of the engines—and thumping hip-hop—someone asked how fast the boat was going.

“Not very,” Johnson said.

Only 60 mph.

“We can go faster if you want to,” he said with a little grin. Then he hammered it. Funny thing, though. The faster and more violent the ride, the more serene Johnson seemed.