With fame, fans and millions of bucks, your typical Tour star has an ego the size of a three-shot par-5. Then there’s Dustin Johnson. The native South Carolinian is soft-spoken and as polite as a Boy Scout. “With me, what you see is what you get,” said Johnson after a recent practice round on the West Coast. “I try to treat everyone with respect.” If humility wasn’t already in his DNA, the 26-year-old would have learned plenty in 2010. He lost his three-stroke, 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach faster than you can say “U.S. Open pressure.” On the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship, Johnson was penalized two strokes for grounding his club in an unkempt bunker and missed out on the playoff. “Those experiences have made me a better player,” said Johnson, who bounced back to win the BMW Championship a month after his Rules gaffe. Though understated in television interviews, Johnson showed a candid, at times playful side as he sat down to talk major disasters, major redemption — and the moment in his youth when he nearly lost everything.
Brandel Chamblee told us you have more potential than any young player. He sees you winning up to eight majors. Are you as confident as he is?
Winning that many majors sounds great, obviously. But the hardest thing is getting the first one. Good players struggle their whole career to get that first one. I have the potential to win a lot. I want to win as many majors as I can. How many? I don’t know. I just want that first one. That’s the toughest.
You had a three-shot lead after 54 holes at the U.S. Open and a one-shot lead after 71 holes at the PGA. How disappointed are you at what might have been in 2010?
I definitely don’t see them as disappointments. I played really well for three days at the U.S. Open and then struggled Sunday. I learned a lot [at Pebble] that helped me down the stretch at the PGA. Everyone forgets that I birdied 16 and 17 [Sunday at the PGA] to get the one-shot lead on 18. I’m out here playing for a chance to win. So all the bad things that happened last year helped me improve as a golfer and a person. I should have a good season in 2011. The more I play these courses, the better I get.
Disaster struck quickly Sunday at the U.S. Open — you went triple/double/bogey on holes 2-4, including that left-handed whiff chip on No. 2. What lesson did you take away?
To slow things down under pressure. I got very fast — fast with my routine, my decisions, my tempo, even my walk. What happened on 2 spiraled and made everything too fast. I talked to [coach] Butch [Harmon] about it. My new word is patience. Slow everything down.
Did you have trouble sleeping with a three-stroke lead?
I slept fine. I had a great warm-up on the range. I was nervous, but it didn’t hit me until the first hole, and the juices started flowing.
What was the low point of the day? Seeing your lead vanish in one hole?
No. I wasn’t upset at that point. Disappointed, sure. But I was still tied for the lead. The low point was that walk back to the tee on 3. I hit [my tee shot] a little left, and they didn’t find it until right after the five minutes were up. I would have gotten a drop [for an unplayable lie] and been fine. But having to go back to the tee — that was a long walk. Then, I horseshoed short putts on 4 and 6. And it was kinda over.
Is it fair to say that you weren’t ready to win the U.S. Open last year?
Oh, I was definitely ready! But it just wasn’t my day. [Long pause] Maybe I wasn’t as ready then as I think I am now. After being in those situations a couple of times, I’m more ready. The more you put yourself there, the more you learn how to handle it. Hey, I came darn close to winning our national championship and the PGA. That’s a positive.
You handled the Rules disaster at the PGA with class. But be honest. Weren’t you broiling inside?
Yeah, I was a little mad, but I brought it all on myself. I can’t be mad at anyone else. It was another good week. I did everything I was supposed to, except that one little thing.
That 'one little thing' cost you two strokes for grounding your club in a hazard. How much responsibility does your caddie, Bobby Brown, bear for not realizing that your ball was in a bunker and not a waste area?
I hit the shot. I grounded the club. It’s not on him to tell me, “You’re in a bunker.”
Sure it is. That’s exactly what his job is. He’s there to help you.
I hit the shot.
Did you get a lot of sympathy texts after the event?
I had a lot of good messages — from Phil, Camilo, Norman, Couples. And I got so much fan support. I loved it. I’m so thankful to my fans. Whenever I walk through an airport, I hear “It wasn’t a bunker!” Or “That was bullsh–!” That helps you get over it.
You won the BMW Championship a month later, your second victory of the year. How sweet was that?
It tasted very sweet. All the things that happened [at Pebble and Whistling Straits], I took and applied Sunday. I hit it great, never got rattled and stayed in my routine. I knew if I hung in there, I would be fine.
We don’t mean to pick on your caddie, but six months after the PGA, at the Northern Trust Open, he gave you the wrong tee time and you were penalized two strokes for being late to the tee. Do you hold him accountable?
Everybody makes mistakes. I mean, it’s as much my fault as it is his. I should have checked our tee time, too, but I just wasn’t paying attention. It’s both of our faults. For whatever reason, I didn’t check it.
So there’s no tension?
Heck, no. Bobby and I are fine. No tension. His job is safe.
You clearly have the talent to be one of the greats, but do you have the killer instinct? If a young Tiger Woods missed his tee time, it’s a safe bet his caddie would have been sent packing.
But neither of the things were [Bobby’s] fault. If it was something he did, it’d be different. My take is, it’s my responsibility. I should have known my tee time. If I wanted to, I could blame someone else. There’s no reason to. It would have been worse if I’d gotten DQ’d, but we made it on time.
With six seconds to spare.
It’s not a big deal. But I can promise you that it’ll never happen again.
You’re a pretty laid back guy. What makes you angry?
When someone tells me that I can’t do something. Because that just makes me go, “F—-off, I’ll show you!” That’s how I work. Telling me that I can’t do something is probably the worst thing that anyone can say, because I’ll definitely do it. I’m very determined.
How competitive are you?
I’m competitive as sh—. If you’re better than me at something, I still think I can beat you.
What’s your favorite part of being a Tour pro?
Everything. I play the best courses, meet the best people, travel the world. I do things I never would get to do otherwise.
Yet you nearly threw it all away. Growing up in South Carolina, you had troubles. When you were 16, a friend’s older brother coerced you into buying bullets for a gun that had been stolen in a burglary you took part in. The man later used the gun in a murder. You testified at the murder trial and were pardoned for wrongdoing in connection with the burglary. Do you think about how your life could have turned out?
I was never really associated with those other people. It was just a wrong-place, wrong-time kind of thing. I sat down with myself afterward, looked in the mirror and realized, “This is not who I am, not what I want to be.” I wanted to go to college. I wanted to play golf. It was an easy decision, getting back on the right path. I didn’t want to throw all this good stuff away.
If you could go back in time and talk to 16-year-old Dustin Johnson, what would you tell him?
“Shame” is a pretty strong word, but I regret things I did, and I regret hurting people that didn’t deserve to be hurt. I definitely made some bad choices. But I can’t say that I’d change anything. What you do, what you experience — that’s how you become who you are. I’m very OK with who I am today. Obviously, there are things that I wish wouldn’t have happened. If I could be in the same spot today and erase all the things that happened, I would. But what happened made me who I am. If it hadn’t happened, maybe I wouldn’t be here [on Tour] today. I paid my dues for my mistakes. I righted my wrongs. I can live with myself. I can say that I’m a good person.
You’re who you are, in part, because of Allen Terrell, your golf coach at Coastal Carolina University. How did he influence you?
Playing for him changed my life. He was a tough coach. He didn’t put up with any bullsh—. You had to do the right thing or else you didn’t play.
Did he single you out?
Oh, absolutely. He was the hardest on me. I was the best player on the team, but if I did something wrong, the whole team got punished for it. I got into trouble for everything. Being on time was his biggest thing. He’d say, “We’re meeting at 7 a.m., so I want you there by 6:45.” And if you were late, you were in trouble! I was late a couple of times, and then I was never late again.
He made us do “up-downs” on the basketball court — you sprint, jump up and touch the backboard, like 20 times. I can touch a backboard just standing up, but after 20 up-downs, I couldn’t even do that. It was like boot camp. It was about accountability. We thought he was the biggest a—hole. He taught me more about life than golf: Do the right thing, be a good person. We’re still friends today.
Let’s end with some short-answer questions. Do you dream about golf?
No. The last dream I had, someone was coming after me. I woke up swinging, ready to fight, ready to f—-ing go!
Who would you like to fight?
Hmm. Someone weak. There’s a guy on Tour I could fight. A huge jerk. But I shouldn’t say.
What would you eat for your last meal?
A big fat steak, mashed potatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese, fried okra, onion rings—and a salad. [Laughs]
I’m superstitious as f—-. I always have a quarter and two tees in my pocket — a 1960s quarter, because I like shooting in the 60s.
If you could replay either the second hole Sunday at the U.S. Open or the 72nd at the PGA, which would it be?
I’ll go with the PGA. I can handle one hole — I’d still have 16 more to play at Pebble. [Pauses] That’s who I’d fight. Put that! Not a person. I’d fight that bunker. And this time, I’d win.