AUGUSTA, Ga.—There are a lot of great golfers in the world, but there is only one Dustin Johnson, which is just as well. Who would have time to write about two?
Johnson withdrew from the Masters on Thursday, after suffering a freak back injury the afternoon before. He summed up his WD in two words, “It sucks,” and it does—for him and for golf. It was also strangely complicated, but that wasn’t surprising. We’re talking about Dustin Johnson. He never just goes from A to B. It’s always A to X to F to H to B, with the occasional stop in another dimension.
Johnson does not just injure himself falling down the stairs; he does so on the day before the Masters. He does not just do so on the day before the Masters; he does it after moving to No. 1 in the World Ranking and winning three straight PGA Tour starts.
And then, he does not just wake up on Thursday morning and decide he can’t go. Of course not. That’s not life in Dustin Johnson World. He warms up on the range, progressing from short irons to his driver. He winces, but he appears to move freely. There are signs that he isn’t quite right—his caddie and brother, Austin, repeatedly puts his ball on the tee—but Dustin looks like he will try to play.
Then he goes to the putting green. You wouldn’t practice putting if you couldn’t play, right?
And then he walks toward the 1st tee … and turns around. You see all sorts of withdrawals in golf: from the clubhouse, the driving range or the 5th tee after a quintuple bogey on No. 4. You do not often see a player appear to walk toward the 1st tee, then veer away—especially at the Masters.
“I could go max about 80%,” Johnson said. “It’s just so tight. Backswing was fine. But right at impact, it would just catch. I just don’t feel like there is any chance of me even competing.”
Johnson also said if the injury had happened on Monday, he would probably be fine.
You can do some really unfair things today if you want. You can question Johnson’s story about slipping on a hardwood floor in his socks on his way to moving his car. You can question his will to play. But you shouldn’t do either. Freak accidents happen, and of course the hottest golfer in the world wants to play in the Masters.
I think back to football fans questioning the toughness of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler when he left the 2010 NFC Championship Game with a knee injury. That’s not the time to lose your desire.
Only Johnson knows exactly how he feels and what he could do. It’s not for me to question. It’s likely he suspected all day that he couldn’t play, but he didn’t want to give in to reality until the last possible moment. Golfers need to be cautious about persevering through back injuries. There is a gentleman named Woods down in Florida who can tell you all about that. Still, the scene along the 1st fairway was bizarre, to put it mildly. Augusta National famously does not allow cell phones on the course, which means information trickles around the property at 1980s speeds. It’s hard for fans lining the 1st fairway to see the tee. You could hear stunned murmurs as fans following the day’s final group realized that only two balls were in the fairway—Bubba Watson’s pink ball and Jimmy Walker’s white ball. The saga just confirmed that Johnson is the PGA Tour player most likely to get bitten by a neighbor’s dog. It’s a strange phenomenon. Johnson rarely says anything interesting, but weirdness seems to climb inside his collar and never leave.
At the end of the 2010 PGA Championship, he was penalized two strokes for grounding his club on the 72nd hole in what he thought was a waste area but in fact was a bunker. He went from playoff participant to two shots back. In 2015, he had a chance to win the U.S. Open, but he three-putted from 12 feet on the last hole. In the final round of last year’s U.S. Open, he was penalized because his ball moved on the 5th hole, even though he didn’t cause it to move, leading his fellow pros to scream at the unfairness of it all. The USGA later said it regretted the penalty. He won anyway.
And of course, there was the time GOLF.com reported that he failed three drug tests, including two for cocaine; and his subsequent denial of that report followed by an admission that he needed to turn his life around and did; and his engagement to Paulina Gretzky, an Instagram sensation who happens to be the daughter of the best hockey player ever. … You have to admit: DJ has lived an eventful life.
Johnson expects to be fine in a few days. Then he will go back to being an athletic freak and a mesmerizing golfer. We’ll all watch him at the U.S. Open. I expect him to defend his title at Erin Hills—unless, you know, he gets hit in the head with an errant shot while administering CPR to a fan.