Dustin Johnson conquered the nation’s toughest golf course, overcame a bizarre rules decision and exorcised demons from major championships past in winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont on Sunday.
The golf world celebrated with him; just check out the messages from fellow pros throughout social media. And home where he grew up, the South Carolina Midlands golf community joined in the jubilation of the second major title won in the past seven years by a alumni of the acclaimed junior golf program.
There’s talk of honoring the newly minted Open champion, now ranked third in the world, with a parade, and those who knew him in his formative days in the Irmo and Dutch Fork communities relish telling stories from yesteryear.
PGA pro Jimmy Koosa can talk forever about the youngster, perhaps 6, who came with his dad to Weed Hill Driving Range. SCGA executive director Happ Lathrop remembers a clutch performance in the South Carolina-Georgia team matches. Chris Miller, one of his high school coaches and junior golf administrator, attests to his power. Bobby Foster, who ran the city tournament for years, and Art Whisnant, Johnson’s grandfather, have their tales to tell.
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They talked about Johnson’s youth, what were they thinking on Sunday and what does the future hold?
ONCE UPON A TIME
Koosa, who operated Weed Hill for more than 30 years until its closing last year, gave lessons to Scott Johnson, Dustin’s dad who would become a PGA pro and served at Mid-Carolina Club. Dustin tagged long and, Koosa said, “He would sit on my golf bag and feed crackers to our Doberman Pinscher.”
Soon enough, 6-year-old Dustin wanted to participate, and, Koosa said, “I’m the first one to teach him how to hold a club.” Instruction continued to focus on the fundamentals – posture, alignment and such – and the pro taught him what he stressed with all juniors, swing hard.
That “swing hard” philosophy led to the extraordinary power Johnson exhibits today. Chris Miller could have predicted that part of his game after watching a junior tournament.
“Dustin and Brian Duncan were playing together in a tournament at Cheraw State Park,” Miller said. “They were probably 14. Brian was a pretty accomplished golfer who played at Clemson. They came to this three-shot par-5, and Brain hit a nice tee ball. Dustin hit his about 50 yards past Brian. They started to play their second shots and I asked Dustin what club he would hit. He held up five fingers – a 5-iron – and he hit the green. No three-shot hole for him. Talk about power; he had it then and now.”
That’s the same combination Johnson used on his ill-fated 18th hole at Chambers Bay in the 2105 U.S. Open and the same theory – usually with a shorter iron – he used to overpower Oakmont.
Whisnant, an all-star basketball player at USC, remembers following Dustin and Austin, his younger brother who now is Dustin’s caddie, “all over” to junior tournaments, and he could see the potential that Lathrop witnessed at the Secession Club in Beaufort.
“We had a tight match (against all-stars from Georgia) and Dustin hit his tee shot into a hazard,” Lathrop said. “The ball was dry, but it was in matted grass. I thought, ‘No way.’ He just plowed it out of that lie onto the green and got us a crucial point.”
Searching for potential players, Coastal Carolina coach Allen Terrell called Miller at the junior golf association and asked about Johnson. “I told him, ‘Well, the last three days he’s shot 63, 64 and 63 at Coldstream and Golden Hills,’ ” Miller said. “Allen was very good for him.”
Johnson played in the city tournament twice and won both times. He wowed perennial champion Steve Liebler with his short-iron second shot into the 17th hole at the Members Club’s Woodcreek course, and Foster said, “You saw the talent, and the guys enjoyed playing with him. He was so appreciated. He came back and played that second year.”
By June 19, 2016, the guy who sparkled for Dutch Fork High and Coastal Carolina had taken his place among his generation’s great golfers. About the only thing missing from his résumé was a major championship.
He had opportunities. He had self-inflected woes at the U.S. and British Opens, and he fell victim to another controversial rules decision in the PGA Championship. Then, on Sunday, USGA officials created what Lathrop called “a mass of confusion” with its belated decision to overrule the on-course referee regarding the reason Johnson’s ball moved on the fifth green.
“My heart wasn’t too good when they started talking about (a penalty) on TV,” Whisnant said. “I thought back to Whistling Straits (the PGA) and said, ‘They’re doing it to him again. How can he keep his focus with that hanging over his head?’ But it turned out OK. It’s very satisfying to see him handle the situation like he did and win the golf tournament.”
“Dustin’s always had that calm persona on the golf course,” Lathrop said. “He might be hot inside, but you can’t tell what he’s thinking by his expression. He handled the situation at the PGA and (Sunday) very well.”
No surprise, said Koosa, who predicted Johnson would win after watching his first hole.
“Dustin had that 6-footer for par on the first hole, and I told (wife) Kris, ‘If he makes that, he’s going to win,’ ” Koosa said. “He made that putt and won the tournament in grand style. On the final hole, I told her, ‘He’s going to hit it up there like this (holding his hands a couple of feet apart).’ She asked how I knew that and I said, ‘That’s just Dustin. He always thinks positively.’ ”
For the local golf community, Johnson’s victory will enable Lathrop and Miller to illustrate to today’s juniors what is possible.
“He is absolutely all for the kids,” Miller said. “He sponsors one of our big events at Hartsville, and his foundation put on a junior tournament at Myrtle Beach this spring that absolutely knocked it out of the park.”
On the course, Koosa predicts the U.S. Open title is just the start of a string of excellence
“He’s going to break loose and dominate,” Koosa said. “I can see him and Jason Day developing a rivalry like Nicklaus and Palmer. I really believe that.”
One reason he believes is Johnson’s toughness. Koosa gave him the nickname “Hickory Nut” years ago, and that’s still what he calls the U.S. Open champion.
“The first year Dustin played in the Masters, he was walking down the fairway in a practice round, and I hollered, ‘Hey, Hickory Nut,’ ” Koosa said. “He did a double-take, came over and gave me a big hug.
“I’m telling you: he’s tough. This is just the start.”