There are few people in golf more eager to see a healthy Dustin Johnson return to the PGA Tour than Mark King, the longtime CEO of TaylorMade, who approved the golfer’s lucrative endorsement contract that runs through 2015.
Drivers are the most important part of TaylorMade’s business, King said in a telephone interview this week, “and Dustin Johnson is our most important American golfer.” King became president of adidas Group North America on June 1 but continues to oversee TaylorMade.
“We have Sergio [Garcia, a Spaniard] and we have Justin Rose [an Englishman], but for our American market Dustin Johnson is the most important golfer we have,” King said. “He drives it tremendous distances.”
Last week Johnson announced that he was taking a “leave of absence from professional golf, effective immediately” to deal with “personal challenges.” King said he had not talked to his star player since but has talked to his agent, David Winkle. King said he expects Johnson’s camp to say more next week about the nature of his issues and what he will do in his time away from golf.
According to King, all TaylorMade contracts require players to enter a certain number of tournaments per year, but he did not say how many events Johnson must play. One PGA Tour agent says that requirement is typically 20 events. Johnson has played 19 events in the Tour’s 2013-'14 wrap-around season, including seven consecutive starts in May and June. Johnson’s guaranteed contract is worth millions of dollars but King characterized it as being “very incentive-based.”
The World No. 17 plays TaylorMade clubs, carries the bag, plays the ball, wears the hat and sleek adidas clothes. He is emblematic of the company’s youth-oriented, athletic marketing approach. Even his fiancé Paulina Gretzky has bolstered the brand, making a cameo appearance in a tight-fitting tank top in a comical “Speed Police” commercial for TaylorMade earlier this year.
One day after Johnson made his announcement, Golf.com reported that he is serving a six-month suspension after testing positive earlier this year for cocaine (he also failed a 2012 test for cocaine and one for marijuana in 2009). The PGA Tour responded by saying that Johnson is on a “voluntary leave,” implying he can come back when he chooses.
The PGA Tour has a policy of providing no information on punishments for failed tests involving what it terms “drugs of abuse”– including cocaine, marijuana and other narcotics deemed non-performance enhancing. That policy essentially allows a player to characterize an enforced absence from the Tour as he sees fit.
King said he did not know anything about the three drug tests Johnson reportedly failed. It is not known if a failed test would void his endorsement contract with TaylorMade.
Golf.com also reported that Johnson’s 11-week absence from the Tour in 2012 was a suspension for a failed drug test. Johnson’s team explained that absence by saying he had injured his back lifting a jet ski onto a dock. “I want to believe what they said,” King said. “That’s what I continue to believe.”
Winkle, Johnson’s agent, said in an interview at the time that his client’s absence was not drug-related. Ty Votaw, a PGA Tour official, did not respond to a request for clarification on that 2012 absence. Asked for comment on Tuesday, Winkle declined.
“This is a personal matter for which I have great compassion, and I have nothing to add,” Winkle said via email.
King said that he likes Johnson and that the eight-time Tour winner was always willing to do anything TaylorMade asked of him. He also said that he did not know Johnson well and has not seen him since the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February.
“I’ll pick up the phone and talk to Sergio all the time, we talked Saturday night before the last round of the Bridgestone, but Dustin and I just never had that kind of relationship,” King said.
The longtime golf industry executive was aware of Johnson’s reputation for hard living and admits that it, along with his unique golf ability, is part of his appeal. Johnson and Gretzky are ubiquitous on social media, with many photos circulating of the couple on speedboats, beaches and private jets. Johnson “has a full, big lifestyle” that appeals to many potential customers, King said. “We’re trying to sell golf clubs. He hits it so long. He’s the best American player we have and he’s one of the best American players. So he’s really important to our brand. He plays with tremendous athleticism. He’s an aspirational personality.”
King said he did not know what he would think if it was confirmed to him that Johnson had failed three drug tests and that those missing months in 2012 were due to a failed drug test for cocaine. He added that Winkle has told him that “the rumors being reported are not true.” King has mixed feelings about the Tour’s drug-testing program in the first place.
“Every major sport has testing,” he said. “Do I believe it is working? I don’t know. I can see why you have it. Society wants it.” But King also wonders if testing for recreational drugs — as opposed to performance enhancing drugs — is necessary.
What King wants most is for a healthy and productive Johnson to return to the Tour, pass all his drug tests, and continue to drive the ball long and in play with the latest TaylorMade driver. Through 58 rounds on Tour this year, Johnson’s average drive is 311 yards. Only Bubba Watson is longer. And he doesn’t play TaylorMade.
UPDATE: Golf.com asked PGA Tour executive vice president Ty Votaw if Johnson’s 11-week absence from the Tour in 2012 was a suspension for a failed drug test. Votaw’s response: “We are not going to have any further comment on this matter.”