A relentless rivalry with brother/caddie Austin has propelled DJ to the top of the game
At the Ryder Cup every little detail becomes an obsession, from the pleats in the golfers’ pants to how the pin positions favor the collective ball flights of the home team. No minutia is insignificant … unless you’re Dustin Johnson and his brother-caddie, Austin, golf’s most laconic characters. During last year’s event at Hazeltine, Dustin faced a sloping mid-length putt that plainly had two or three feet of right-to-left break. After conferring with his brother, he started his ball a yard left of the hole, missing the putt by at least six feet. Had the tension short-circuited his stroke or perhaps clouded his vision, even though this was just a practice round? In his soft South Carolina drawl, Dustin offered his caddie a different explanation: “Awwwww, man, I had the [green-reading] book upside down.”
Then there was the alternate-shot match with Matt Kuchar against Europe’s Thomas Pieters and Lee Westwood. On the par-5 6th hole, Kuchar drove into the rough and then walked ahead toward the cross bunkers that pinch the layup area. The Johnson brothers spent an inordinate amount of time staring at their yardage books and discussing the shot. Were they calculating the risk/reward of going for the green or deciding how aggressive to be with a layup? Finally, Dustin bunted a shot into the fairway way short of the cross bunkers, leaving Kuchar a 7-iron in when he easily could have had a wedge. The Johnsons wore sheepish smiles as they walked up to Kuchar. “We weren’t sure we had the right [sprinkler] head,” Austin said. In other words, they couldn’t figure out the distance they needed to hit the shot, resulting in the cautious play.
“With anybody else, that could have created a lot of tension,” says John Wood, Kuchar’s caddie. “With those guys it was like, Hey, no big deal. We were still in the fairway, Kooch knocked his shot on the green, and we halved the hole [and went on to win the match 5 and 4]. That put a thought in my head I haven’t forgotten: Why get so worked up over something that has already happened, ya know? Those two never sweat the small stuff.”
One major champion compares the Johnsons to Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, the charmingly guileless protagonists of Dumb & Dumber. Let us not forget that Lloyd and Harry thwarted a complicated kidnapping plot while scoring some snazzy tuxedos, just as DJ and AJ in their own unassuming style have taken over the golf world. In the last 12 months the Johnsons have won a U.S. Open under the most taxing circumstances, led a cathartic U.S. triumph at the Ryder Cup and piled up five other big-time victories to put a stranglehold on the top spot in the World Ranking. As Dustin, 32, prepares to defend his Open title this week at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wis., the gap between him and No. 2 Rory McIlroy is larger than the distance between McIlroy and No. 23 (Phil Mickelson). That Dustin was honored as PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2016 was not a surprise; his goofy kid brother’s winning caddie of the year honors, as voted by his peers, was more of an upset. How did Austin, 30, become the copilot on a Tigeresque stretch of dominance?
“I had always wanted to see Australia and Thailand,” he says. This was in late 2013, back when Dustin was still considered an extravagantly talented head case. In the preceding years he had blown, in slapstick style, a U.S. Open, a PGA Champion-ship and a British Open. His caddie was mild-mannered Bobby Brown, who said very little during Johnson’s crunch-time follies. The conventional wisdom on Tour was that Dustin needed a hard-ass to dictate strategy and keep him in line. Days from becoming a father, Brown didn’t want to travel to Australia for the Perth International, so Dustin asked his brother to fill in. Austin had graduated from the College of Charleston earlier that year, having transferred there after three seasons as a shooting guard at Charleston Southern. He was just hanging out, pondering a job in sales. Following a solid finish in Australia, the Johnsons had a week to kill before the World Golf Championship in Shanghai, so they vacationed in Thailand. Lying on the beach, Dustin started running some numbers: “I was gonna have to fly Austin back to the States and then fly Bobby out to China. I’m like, Why am I spending all this extra money? So I called Bobby and told him to spend more time with his baby. And then, unfortunately for him, we won in China. After that, I went to AJ and was like, Yo, you wanna do this?”
In fact, Dustin shot 24 under to shatter the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament record. The two cut quite a figure on the course—Dustin is 6’4″, Austin 6’3″, and both carry themselves with a loose-limbed jock swagger. They had a palpable camara-derie in the Far East, and for Dustin the triumph felt different with Austin by his side. Afterward he confided to his agent, David Winkle, “No way I was gonna let those guys beat me and my little brother.” The winner’s check was $1.4 million; since caddies traditionally get 10%, Dustin was quite happy to keep all that money in the family. There were other reasons for asking Austin to stay on the bag. “You travel with your caddie, eat with your caddie, spend all day with your caddie,” Dustin says. “It needs to be someone you like, someone you trust. I’m never gonna have with anyone else what I have with him.”
Dustin and Austin come from athletic stock: Their 6’4″ maternal grandfather, Art Whisnant, is in the South Carolina Hall of Fame for his basketball exploits, and their father, Scott, was a high school stud who lettered in football, basketball, baseball and soccer before going into a career in golf as a teaching pro. (He was the boys’ first swing coach.) Along with their sister, Laurie, the Johnson boys grew up outside of Columbia in the small town of Irmo. They lived on Shortbow Court, a cul-de-sac that became the proving ground for every sports-minded kid in the neighborhood. The Lew family lived across the street; Matt is Dustin’s age, Justin about as old as Austin, and they were all good athletes. “I don’t think I played one video game growing up,” says Justin. “We were outside till dark every night, usually battling DJ and AJ. Those guys were a handful. They were great at every sport.”
Shortbow Court was the site of epic tussles in street hockey, tackle football, Wiffle ball, capture the flag “and every other game you can think of,” says Austin. The boys used to hit golf balls off the Lews’ front lawn, over the house and into the woods beyond. They played pickup basketball at Cornerstone Church, with Austin raining in jumpers and Dustin dominating in the paint. Both were all-stars in baseball, Austin as a rangy shortstop, Dustin as a pitcher with a sizzling fastball. They honed their hitting strokes playing home run derby with a tennis ball in the Lews’ yard. That led to the unfortunate occasion when a line drive shattered Cheryl Lew’s favorite lamp. “My mom came out so mad, and we all pointed fingers at each other and wouldn’t say who did it,” says Justin. All these years later, is he ready to reveal the culprit?
After a long pause he says, “Austin.”
Unlike his exceedingly chill brother, Austin was a bit of a hothead. “I was usually the one tellin’ him not to beat some kid’s ass,” says Dustin. Of course, it’s easier to be lippy when you have a towering big brother. Says Justin, “Dustin picked on Austin, like all brothers do. But if anyone touched Austin, he was the first one there to settle it. They always had each other’s back.”
This included cheering for each other at junior tournaments, where they played in different age groups. “We thought Austin was going to be the pro golfer,” says Justin. “I’ve never seen a kid crush the ball like he did at age 12.” But Austin gravitated toward basketball, especially after getting hurt playing football during his freshman year at Dutch Fork High. Dustin had begun focusing on golf in the seventh grade, when he played varsity for Irmo. (In ninth grade he transferred to Dutch Fork.) Some of the deeds from his youth have the ring of myth, except they’re true. There was the 64 he shot 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. Dustin returned the next day, putted out everything and posted another 64. In eighth grade, on the day of the end-of-season banquet, he and his teammates played 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 Dustin. He tweaked his back on the second nine but still got home in 35 for a course-record 63. Because DJ has always made it look so easy, there has long been the assumption that he coasts on natural talent. “That ticks me off because they have no idea how hard he’s worked,” says Kevin Britt, who ran the Weed Hill Driving Range in Irmo when Dustin was a youngster. Britt says Dustin spent six days a week there. Weed Hill had a wicked practice green for sharpening wedge play, and the facility was lit until 10 p.m. Dustin often closed the place down. About 30 kids were regulars, and Britt estimates half of them went on to play college golf, but none have sniffed Dustin’s professional success (though Wesley Bryan is a leading contender for Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour). “He was a talented kid, but to be honest, what Dustin had that nobody else did was that he knew he would make it,” says Britt. “Two months ago I was at a dinner with his eighth-grade geography teacher. She says, ‘That student of yours, Dustin Johnson… ‘ I start rolling my eyes because I know this is gonna be good. She tells me how she was giving Dustin a hard time about a test grade and he says, ‘Miss Kennedy, I don’t need to know where that place is, because when I’m on the PGA Tour, I’ll have a private jet and the pilot will know how to get me there.'”
While Dustin was starring at Coastal Carolina and then having immediate success upon reaching the PGA Tour in 2008, Austin was pursuing his hoop dreams. For his senior year he transferred to Charis Prep in Wilson, N.C., to play for the renowned coach Carlos Peralta, who has had 104 players land Division I scholarships. Austin started every game and averaged 16.8 points while shooting 56.4% on three-pointers and 92.3% from the line. “He might be the best outside shooter I’ve ever coached,” says Peralta. He still recalls a game against North Carolina’s jayvee team, in the Dean Dome. Charis was down two points in the closing minute when Austin hit a three, keying the victory. What made it so satisfying for the longtime coach was that his team had been practicing how to read the defensive reaction to a ball screen and Austin executed the step-back perfectly.
“He has a very high basketball IQ,” says Peralta. “He has a natural ability to read people and situations, and he has an innate understanding of strategy. And he stays very cool under pressure.”
Similarly, Britt says of Dustin, “He never stopped asking questions, never stopped asking me to work with him, and he built up a tremendous understanding of the golf swing. He has a very analytical mind.” This squares with the story from a veteran Tour caddie who once watched Dustin play five hands of blackjack simultaneously for a solid hour. With all the splitting of cards and doubling down, twice the dealer failed to pay out the correct amount. “Dustin caught it instantly,” says the caddie. Perhaps there’s more than meets the eye to these down-home Johnson boys.
On the 5th hole of the final round of last year’s U.S. Open, on a frighteningly fast and sloped Oakmont green, Dustin’s ball twitched as he addressed it with his putter. He talked it over with the rules official in the group, and it was determined he had not caused the ball to move and thus was spared a penalty stroke. Dustin continued to brawl with the nastiest course in championship golf; he had begun the final round tied for second, four strokes behind Shane Lowry, but by the time he arrived at the 12th hole, Johnson had seized a two-shot lead. Waiting on the tee was a phalanx of persnickety USGA officials, who informed Dustin and Austin that after reviewing video of the incident on the 5th green, there was a good chance a penalty would be assessed. But in the cruelest and most confounding of twists, a final determination would not be made until after the round, when Dustin would be given the chance to see the replay and plead his case. The tournament was plunged into chaos, with none of the players knowing exactly where the leader stood. On Twitter, Dustin’s colleagues (and the rest of the golf cognoscenti) were losing their minds. The only two people who seemed mellow about the whole thing were the Johnson boys. They sauntered along, choosing the correct clubs and hitting the right shots, capped by an instantly classic kick-in birdie on the 72nd hole. Dustin was indeed assessed a penalty stroke, but he still won by three.
Looking back, he gives plenty of credit to his caddie: “That whole week, I felt like we were just groovin’. We agreed on everything we were doin’. We had a great game plan for the golf course, so it felt pretty easy. And we were executin’. When all that stuff happened on Sunday, we just stuck to our game plan.”
Says Wood, who has caddied on Tour for 21 seasons, “I was in awe of how they handled it. They were the perfect duo to deal with that situation. It didn’t matter to them. Or, they made it not matter. There are as many mistakes made on Tour from overthinking as anything else. They didn’t get paralyzed overthinking; they just went out and took the trophy.”
After that breakthrough the floodgates opened, as Dustin won the three ensuing World Golf Championships—lifetime, only Tiger Woods has claimed more of these marquee events—and a five-stroke laugher at Riviera in February. Heading into the Masters he had won three straight starts and was the prohibitive favorite. Then came a very Dustin-like development: a back injury from a freak spill on a staircase that forced a last-minute withdrawal. Still, he has once again been making it look so easy that some are loath to give Austin any credit. “Dustin hits it so far and so straight, he doesn’t need a lot of help,” says Tour veteran Cameron Tringale. “Austin just gets him the yardage and gets out of the way. That’s all Dustin really needs.”
In fact, Austin is the voice of reason when Dustin is trying to devour a golf course whole. “Usually I’m trying to talk him into playing more conservative,” he says.
“Never works,” says Dustin.
It’s true that there are rounds when Austin’s primary task is to make sure he has packed enough chewing tobacco for the two to share, but folks like Tringale don’t grasp the larger role played by the person Dustin calls “my best friend for life.” During off-weeks they often hang out off the South Florida coast on Dustin’s boat, Just Chillin. (In the inevitable Instagram posts, it can be tough to distinguish Austin’s blonde girlfriend, Samantha Maddox, a former all-conference tennis player at the College of Charleston, from Dustin’s fiancée, Paulina Gretzky.) Part of what has fueled Dustin’s ascension is a deep commitment to diet and fitness, and Austin’s zealotry about clean eating has been an influence, to the point that Dustin imports a chef to all of the big tournaments. “I had dinner with AJ last night,” says DJ’s trainer, Joey Diovisalvi. “He had two chicken breasts, sautéed spinach and a salad. I see Dustin this morning and ask him what he had for dinner, and he says two chicken breasts, sautéed spinach and a salad. It’s getting eerie with those two.”
Dustin trains six days a week, often twice a day, and Austin almost always serves as a wingman and foil. If they’re on road bikes, they race until it feels as if their thighs might combust. If they’re paddleboarding, both are digging hard to be the first one back to the beach. The competitiveness carries over to their sessions in the weight room and the swimming pool. “Neither one can stand not being the best,” says Diovisalvi. “They feed off each other, they push each other, they nurture each other. They’re killing themselves for a shared goal. Dustin loves to be better than everybody else. He is not content just to be No. 1; he wants to be No. 1 by even more. And he knows that Austin is all-in. There is a sense of team that is so authentic. These two are going to grow old together, their kids are going to grow up together, and they’re going to spend the rest of their lives talking about all the tournaments they won together.”
It is not only this love but also a mutual admiration that makes Dustin and Austin such an effective team. Says Diovisalvi, “This is why Austin is the perfect caddie for Dustin: because DJ respects him as an equal. He knows AJ is a baller, just like he is.”
This raises a fundamental question: Which Johnson is the superior athlete? Clearly, Austin is the better basketball player; in a pickup game of Tour pros and caddies a couple of years ago, “he threw down some dunks that were really impressive,” says Bill Haas. Then again, Dustin can dunk in bare feet and once beat Shane Battier in a three-point contest. Dustin obviously has the edge on the golf course, though a few years ago Austin clipped him on their first nine at TPC Myrtle Beach by eagling both par-5s. “It didn’t last,” says Dustin. “He started chirpin’ too much instead of playing golf.”
So, boys, what’s the answer?
“It’s hard to say you’re a better athlete than the No. 1 player in the world,” says Austin.
“He just doesn’t want to get fired,” cracks Dustin.
“Put it this way: It’s really close,” says Austin. “The problem is that these days we don’t really play many sports against each other, ’cause I’m scared one of us would get hurt.”
“We play basketball in the pool,” says Dustin. “It gets serious.”
“Anything goes,” says Austin.
Meaning you can hold each other underwater?
Dustin looks at his kid brother and smiles. They’ve been battling since their days on Shortbow Court. Now they’ve conquered a grand old game. But that doesn’t mean Dustin will ever stop being the big brother.
“Yeah, I mean, I hold him under for a reasonable amount of time,” Dustin says. “I don’t want to drown him. I just want to teach him a lesson every now and then.”