Dustin Johnson is the reigning U.S. Open champion, the No. 2 player in the world, the frontrunner for the 2016 PGA Tour Player of the Year Award, and the leader in the FedExCup points competition heading into the season-ending Tour Championship.
He can win $11.53 million with a victory over 29 players this week.
He’s at the pinnacle of the professional golf world, in addition to being engaged to model Paulina Gretzky and having an adorable 20-month-old son, Tatum.
“It can’t really get much better,” Johnson said Wednesday on the eve of the first round at East Lake Golf Club.
But it certainly could have turned out worse.
Growing up, it didn’t appear the Coastal Carolina alumnus was destined for this kind of profound success.
In fact, Johnson was at a point as a teenager where continued truancy or another run-in with the law threatened his future.
But he always believed this was possible, and made the necessary decisions and life changes to enable the prosperity he’s enjoying today.
“I’m very thankful and grateful for it,” Johnson said.
A bumpy road
The game came easy and was accessible to Johnson, whose father, Scott, was the head pro at Mid Carolina Club near Columbia in the early- and mid-1990s.
His talent was obvious early.
He made the Irmo High golf team as an 11-year-old seventh grader and finished in the top 10 in the state tournament that year.
As a 14-year-old, Johnson shot a pair of 64s on consecutive days to set course records at both Coldstream Country Club in Irmo and Golden Hills Golf & Country Club in Lexington. He also won the state junior championship.
By high school his parents were divorced and Johnson lived with his father and transferred to Dutch Fork High.
It was there that Johnson befriended an older group, and their influence led to poor youthful decisions. He’d often either play golf or take a boat or jet ski out on Lake Murray rather than attend school his sophomore and junior years.
Because of that, he didn’t have a lot to show for his high school and junior golf careers despite his talent.
Perhaps Johnson’s worst teenage decision also led to the realization that changes were necessary.
Johnson said he was with a group of teenagers who were directed by Steven Gillian, the older brother of one of Johnson’s best friends, to steal goods from a home, including a gun and coin collection. Johnson said he never entered the home.
But because Johnson knew a pawn shop owner well through buying and selling golf clubs, he was coerced by Gillian into pawning some stolen items.
Gillian would later use the stolen gun to kill a friend after they fought at a party, and the resulting criminal investigation led to Johnson’s arrest. He eventually testified in Gillian’s trial and paid reparations for the stolen items, and has since been pardoned.
By his senior year, Johnson realized the golf career he always wanted might not come without an accompanying education, so he was committed to good grades his senior year and helped Dutch Fork win the 2002 Class AAAA state golf championship by 27 strokes.
“Who knows what’s going to happen when you’re that young. No one knows,” Johnson said. “Growing up, people would ask me what I was going to do and I’d tell them I’m going to play on the PGA Tour. They probably all thought I was full of (junk). That’s what I believed I was going to do.”
But the traditional path to the PGA Tour is to play in college first, and his past absences left him a foreign language class shy of qualifying for the University of South Carolina, where he wanted to go, and he also needed to complete a SAT or ACT college entrance test.
He took the class at Midlands Technical College, worked on the maintenance staff and in the golf cart barn at Timberlake Golf Club in Chapin, and played golf every afternoon.
“I was smart in school, it just wasn’t my thing,” Johnson said. “… I wanted to go to college, but I wanted to go to college to play sports, not necessarily to get an education.”
The USC offer never came, but an opportunity from Coastal Carolina coach Allen Terrell did.
Johnson said he was on his way to Myrtle Beach for a fun couple days when he noticed the CCU campus off U.S. 501.
“I called and got the number and faxed my resume over to (Terrell),” Johnson said. “He called me the next day and said, ‘Do you want to meet?’ So I went and met coach Terrell and then we worked it out and got me into school.”
A grandmother who took an active role in his life and the college coach who took a chance on him have facilitated Johnson’s present success.
Johnson received assistance and guidance from his late paternal grandmother, Carole Jones, who was a co-owner with her brother of the Hampton Automotive car dealership in Columbia. Jones died during Johnson’s first pro season in 2008 after complications from a surgery that was thought to be fairly routine.
In addition to helping Johnson pay for college and financing his junior and amateur golf careers, she often traveled with him to junior tournaments, walked the course while he played, accompanied him to banquets and dinners, and ironed his clothes before he teed off.
“She played a major part in my life,” Johnson said. “She allowed me to go to college, helped me financially pay for it. She allowed me to travel and play all these big amateur events, buying me flights and stuff like that, that I probably wouldn’t have had access to go do. She definitely helped me further my career.”
Jones also served as a role model with her character and amiable personality. She and Johnson had dinner just about every Wednesday during his college years at the Sea Merchant restaurant in North Myrtle Beach. “She was a great person and was always there for me,” Johnson said.
Jones owned a condo on the Grand Strand and retired there full-time in June 2003, two months before Johnson’s freshman year began.
She made a call to Terrell to lobby for Dustin’s acceptance into his program, and it had an impact, as did Terrell knowing she would be an influence on the Strand during Johnson’s college years. “She was moving to the area, and it definitely was a positive when Carole called about him and explained the back story,” said Terrell, who said he went through a vetting process he hadn’t gone through for another recruit at that point.
Johnson developed under a tough love relationship with Terrell. He was a two-time First Team All-American, won multiple amateur tournaments, led Coastal Carolina to a program-best fifth-place finish in the 2007 NCAA Championships, and was selected to the 2007 U.S. Walker Cup team before turning pro.
“I’ve got to definitely give credit to coach Terrell,” Johnson said. “He’s done a lot for me and kind of helped me mold into the person I am today.”
Terrell is the head of instruction for Johnson’s golf school at the TPC Myrtle Beach and has a role in Johnson’s charitable foundation that benefits junior golf and other youth causes.
Atop the golf world
Johnson has the inside track to win the season-long FedExCup championship this week and PGA Tour Player of the Year Award.
He can win $11.53 million if he wins the Tour Championship: $1.53 of the Tour Championship’s $8.5 million purse and the $10 million FedExCup champion bonus.
“You look at him, and he checks all the boxes of what a No. 1 player in the world looks like,” Brandt Snedeker said.
The 12-time PGA Tour winner has been a model of consistency with wins in each of his nine years on the PGA Tour, but 2016 has been a breakout year.
He has three wins, and joined Tiger Woods as the only players to win a major, World Golf Championships event and FedExCup Playoff event in the same season.
“There are three things for him to be successful: His driving, putting, and wedges. That's all he needs, and that's what he's doing great right now. At his length with the wedges, and then he's got tremendous touch for a big fellow out there. His touch is amazing around the greens, and he putts really well. Right now his confidence is so high. When you have a lot of confidence and you feel like nobody can beat you, it's game over for everyone else. World No. 1 Jason Day on Dustin Johnson
Of his past 44 events that are factored into the current world ranking, Johnson has finished in the top 10 in 25 of them with four wins — in the U.S. Open, two WGC events and the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick two weeks ago.
The 2016 PGA Tour leader in driving distance has recorded top-10 finishes in 14 of his 21 tour starts this season and has finished outside the top 25 just three times.
He has never finished higher than fourth in the final FedExCup Playoffs ranking, but has finished fifth in his past two trips to East Lake in 2013 and ’15.
“My clear favorite (this week) has to be Dustin. The way he played at Crooked Stick was just brilliant,” BMW runner-up Paul Casey said. “… Dustin doesn't ever get enough credit for other aspects of his game. Everybody focuses on the driving, and I mean, he was clearly a long way past myself and everybody else that week. … But his wedge game and putting are just great. They really are.”
There have been bumps in the road, including a DUI arrest in Myrtle Beach in 2009 and a six-month leave of absence from the PGA Tour in 2014-15 to deal with “personal challenges” that Johnson said included occasional excessive drinking.
But as he did in his youth, Johnson has come out of the experiences better off.
“Obviously the golf game can get better, but life’s really good,” Johnson said. “Me and Paulina are doing great, my son’s healthy and happy. Life’s great right now, for sure.”
Johnson’s Playoff, Tour Championship history
Began Playoffs Rank
Tour Championship Result