Masters favourite Dustin Johnson savours the second act of his American life

Oliver Brown
Dustin Johnson has three wins from three tournament starts - Getty Images North America

A popular view of Dustin Johnson is that he won the genetic lottery. That is, if you wanted genes that enabled you to leather a golf ball 400 yards while looking as if you were on a scenic tour of the Everglades. 

As golf’s swaggering alpha male, Johnson ticks off many facets of the quintessential Southern boy. Loves fishing, loves his family, hawks a mouthful of tobacco almost as far as he hits his pitching wedge. 

Rustle up a mean mint julep and he would, in the eyes of this week’s Augusta galleries, be essentially complete.

Athletically, he is already the polished specimen. Rangy, supple, with an implausible degree of hip and arm extension, Johnson is a modern prototype in a sport not known for putting a premium on conditioning. 

No sooner had he won his third straight tournament in Austin last month than he was back in the gym the next morning, with his trainer Joey Diovisalvi, perfecting his dead-lifts.

Dustin Johnson unleashes a drive at the par four third Credit: AP

Johnson has become the golfer even Tiger Woods could not match for insouciance. He evidently believes himself to be above even Augusta National’s stringent protocols

There is an unwritten rule that the Green Jackets frown upon players wearing their caps at press conferences, but Johnson flouted it yesterday. 

The same freewheeling impulse is manifested in his swing. Once Ernie Els was the template for all those aspiring to the perfect action, but Johnson these days is a byword for effortless power, propelling tee-shots into the adjacent zip code while appearing as if he could repeat the trick one-handed if you asked him.

Close your eyes when Johnson speaks and one is reminded of an impression Rory Bremner used to do of Bill Clinton, ramping up the former president’s down-home Arkansas drawl for maximum folksy effect. 

His laconic demeanour is not merely for show. The lazy-eyed South Carolinian is what Butch Harmon, his former coach, once called a “flat-liner”, a young man in whom the vagaries of this fiendish game produce no discernible difference in pulse.

He arrives at this Masters a clear favourite, having ironed out his putting stroke and remedied the mental weaknesses that could so often trigger his unravelling. For all that his brain fade during the 2015 US Open – where he three-putted the final green to hand victory to Jordan Spieth – could have wrought psychological damage, Johnson’s friends claimed that he had all but forgotten about it a day later.

Dustin Johnson three-putted the last at the 2015 US Open Credit: Getty Images

Ostensibly, he is one who has it all: the physique, the too-cool-for-school deportment, the world No 1 ranking, not to mention a partner, in wife Paulina, who just happens to be the daughter of Wayne Gretzky, ice hockey’s greatest player. 

It is his young family, centred around two-year-old son Tatum, who seem increasingly to anchor him and compel to take his day job more seriously. 

How strange, in retrospect, it feels to recall the words of his former caddie, Bobby Brown. “He’s not the most dedicated player on the planet,” Brown said. “And thank God for the rest of us that he isn’t.”

This is the moment for the rest to quake, now that Johnson has belatedly begun to explore his full potential. He toyed with the opposition at his recent matchplay triumph in Texas, leading for 105 of 112 holes. 

At 32, contrary to all F Scott Fitzgerald’s wisdom, he is clearly relishing the second act of his American life. 

It was only 2½ years ago that he was forced to take a six-month sabbatical, amid suggestions that he had failed three drug tests, including two for cocaine, and had been involved in extramarital affairs. Johnson denied it all, insisting he was guilty of nothing more sinister than an excessive penchant for vodka.

He was nervous and non-committal when asked yesterday about the sins of the past. If it had not been for this forced hiatus, would he ever have been in this position at the summit of golf? 

“I don’t know,” he said, quietly. “Maybe not. I know everybody makes mistakes, but I have always tried to learn from mine.”

Johnson drives down the par-five eighth at Augusta Credit: Reuters

The fascination about Johnson is that there is scar tissue behind that faraway stare, if you scratch deep enough. His early life was turbulent, traumatic even. Brought up by his paternal grandfather after his parents’ divorce, he was convicted at the age of 16 for second-degree burglary, before being embroiled in the theft of a handgun that was later used in a murder. 

Johnson was pardoned in 2009 but arrested in the same year for driving under the influence, in a case dismissed when he pleaded guilty to recklessness.

Against this background, it can be difficult to recreate the prism through which Johnson is perceived. He is a player of other-worldly talent – a “freak of nature”, Rickie Fowler called him this week – but in an uncertain post-Woods age, this by itself is no longer sufficient. 

Where Woods could draw gasps of wonder with his greatest flourishes, Johnson tends to elicit no more than muffled admiration. He betrays little emotion, delivers scant nuance through his words. 

There is plenty of evidence that he has mellowed since the problems he suffered in his youth. 

For his part, Johnson ascribes the change in outlook almost solely to the arrival of his son. “That was probably the biggest change in my life,” he said. “It contributed to a lot of my success.” 

Whether or not his glories are sustained here at Augusta this week, the one uncertainty is that Johnson will take the outcome firmly in his long, loping stride.

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