Many on the Grand Strand know Dustin Johnson as a Coastal Carolina alumnus and Myrtle Beach homeowner.
To a foursome playing with Johnson on Friday at the TPC of Myrtle Beach, he was the No. 10 player in the world and one of the hottest professional golfers on the planet.
As a spokesperson for marketing cooperative Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, Johnson returned to the Strand on Friday to fulfill a few commitments. He played a round at the TPC with Preston Browder of Charlotte, N.C. – who won a sweepstakes to play with Johnson sponsored by Golf Holiday and Golfsmith – and three of his friends from Texas. Johnson fittingly awed his playing partners.
“It’s extremely impressive to see up close,” Browder said. “He crushes his driver and he hit a couple just amazing 150-yard shots that were just up and down and stuck right by the pin. It’s pretty cool to watch. It’s motivating when you see people that can do that kind of stuff in person.”
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The foursome also discovered Johnson’s easy-going personality that many area residents have come to know. “It was a cool experience,” Browder said. “He was really down to earth, too. He was cool to hang out with and talk to and wasn’t intimidating or anything. We talked about ‘Top Gun’ and Kelly McGillis. That was interesting.”
Following golf, Johnson shot promotional videos for Golf Holiday, took photos for an upcoming cover story in WestJet’s in-flight magazine, conducted a putting clinic and Q&A session with attendees at an hour-long event at Golfsmith, and appeared on the GolfTalk Live radio show based in Philadelphia that was broadcasting from the store.
“It’s a good relationship and I’m happy to be a part of it,” Johnson said of his agreement with Golf Holiday.
Johnson expects to return to the area April 14 to play in the 20th annual Hootie & the Blowfish Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am at Barefoot Resort’s Dye Club.
The TPC was CCU’s home course during his four years at the university from 2003-07, and he opened the Dustin Johnson Golf School there six months ago, with instruction headed by his former college coach, Allen Terrell.
“I always love coming back to Myrtle Beach, especially playing here,” Johnson said. “I consider this like my home golf course.”
Johnson said he believes he’s three classes shy of attaining his CCU degree in sports management, and though he hasn’t made any progress on it recently, it’s something he covets.
“I’m going to finish it at some point,” he said. “It’s something I want to do and I’m working on it. It’s tough because they don’t really do online, so it’s about getting with the teachers and having them do something online for me because obviously I can’t attend class.”
Johnson has risen to 10th in the Official World Golf Ranking and is second on the PGA Tour to Jimmy Walker in both FedExCup points and earnings with more than $2.95 million.
He leads the tour this season in scoring average (68.77), birdie average (5.38 per round), par breakers (31.25 percent of his holes) and all-around ranking and is second on tour in greens hit in regulation (76.74 percent).
Johnson won the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in China in early November to begin his 2013-14 season, tied for sixth in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in early January, finished second in both the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and Northern Trust Open in February, and played 15 holes of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship last week before being eliminated 4 and 3 by Peter Hanson in the first round.
“I’m playing really well right now,” he said. “Not counting the match play, I’ve played really solid in every event I’ve played, so I have a lot of confidence starting the year out.”
Johnson, 29, has achieved quality without quantity this season. He has played in just five of 15 PGA Tour events since the new wraparound season began in early October, which is fewer than anyone else in the top 10 in FedExCup points. He’s played half the number of events of both Walker and third-place Harris English.
“The only tournament I didn’t play that I normally do was [January’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines near] San Diego,” Johnson said. “So I just took one tournament off that I normally play. I’m still going to play probably 22 events, so that’s a lot.”
His upcoming schedule consists of next week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral in Miami, the Shell Houston Open from April 3-6 following another three-week break, and the Masters Tournament the following week at Augusta National Golf Club.
“I play a lot more it seems in the summertime, when I play just about every week,” Johnson said. “So I try to take a little bit of time off now just to stay fresh because I know once the summer time comes up it’s a grind through the [FedExCup] playoffs.”
Johnson has achieved his success this year with his brother and former Charleston Southern basketball player Austin as his caddie. Austin replaced Bobby Brown, who had been Johnson’s caddie for most of his pro career over two stints.
“Having my brother out there has been great,” Johnson said. “He’s my best friend and we get along really well. So it’s a lot of fun having him on the bag and obviously we’ve done quite well so far, so it’s been really good.
“Sometimes you need a change. It’s not that Bobby did anything or I thought we weren’t doing a good job. Sometimes you need a change and having my brother on the bag has been really good. I think I focus and concentrate a little harder with him being on the bag because I’m doing more stuff.”
Johnson has won eight times on the PGA Tour – he’s the first player since Tiger Woods to win at least once in each of his first seven seasons on the tour – but the Masters will be Johnson’s next chance to win an elusive first major championship. The Masters will be Johnson’s 20th major, and he has either held a final-round lead or finished second in the other three. His tie for 13th last year is his best Masters finish.
“I just have to keep giving myself opportunities to win,” Johnson said. “It’s no different than a normal event. Obviously it’s a little better field than most events and it’s at a tough venue. It’s just a tough golf tournament to win. If I just keep giving myself opportunities eventually I’ll get one.”
The season’s second major, the U.S. Open in June, will be just a 2½-hour car ride from Myrtle Beach at Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course.
“It’s not too far from where I grew up so I’ll have a lot of hometown fans out,” said the Columbia native. “But I haven’t spent a lot of time at Pinehurst so I’m looking forward to seeing it.”