Dustin Johnson never had it easy.
I know, I know. Right now, you’re saying, “Huh?”
Here’s your 2016 U.S. Open champion, recognized as the best pure athlete on the PGA Tour, with a drop-dead-gorgeous girlfriend, an 18-month-old son that he dotes on, 10 victories in nine years with at least one each year – the longest such streak for anyone not named Tiger Woods – and, oh yeah, that $1.8 million paycheck he collected on Sunday with a 4-under-par (best ever at wicked Oakmont Country Club) and three-shot victory.
Don’t be fooled, though. The Irmo native and former All-American at Coastal Carolina, who turns 32 on Thursday, had to battle for everything he’s earned in his professional and personal life. The fact that he always made golf (and other things) look easy, only made actually doing what he’s done that much harder.
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And that goes back further than his turbulent previous record in golf’s major championships, though that resume was his pre-Open storyline.
In 2010, Johnson – DJ to friends, family and fans – led the U.S. Open by three shots heading to Sunday’s final round. Four holes on, he was five-over par en route to an ugly 82 that allowed Graeme McDowell to win.
If that could be chalked up to first-time-contender nerves (and not everyone called it that), the next chapters began a uncomfortable narrative. At 2010’s PGA Championship, he knocked himself out of a playoff by grounding his club in a sort-of bunker. This week, writers recalled how ill-defined that “bunker” was – but in 2010, DJ freely admitted he hadn’t read the rules sheet defining those bunkers, earning him labels ranging from “inattentive” to “dumb.”
When he blew a shot out of bounds at the 2011 British Open Championship, the underachiever narrative continued. Then last year at Chambers Bay, his three-putt 72nd green – when one putt would’ve won and two forced a playoff – cast him for many as a monumental tease: all talent and no brains, lacking the putting or guts or smarts to win a major.
But what doubters didn’t see was a player who, while absorbing those blows, stayed doggedly focused and on course to Sunday’s triumph.
Throughout his disappointments, the strangest thing was Johnson’s seeming nonchalance. He never criticized tournament officials for the “bunker” violation, and after his final hole last year, he – unlike others – never blamed Chambers Bay’s embarrassingly bumpy greens. Even late Sunday, Johnson barely cracked a smile until hoisting son Tatum on the 18th green.
David Winkle, his agent, once related how as Johnson’s support group – girlfriend Paulina Gretzky, her father Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky, caddie/brother Austin and others – drove away in stunned silence from Chambers Bay, it was DJ who said, in essence, “Hey, nobody died today.”
If anyone knows that, it’s Dustin Johnson.
Never had it easy? A child of divorce, tall and athletic beyond his years as a youngster, he ran with an older, tougher crowd. As a young teen, he and other juveniles were involved in a string of robberies masterminded by a friend’s older brother, including the theft of a gun later used by the older brother to commit murder.
Try dealing with that before you’ve turned 16.
Johnson did have others watching out for him, or trying to: local golf instructor Jimmy Koosa, who congratulated “Hickory Nut” on social media Sunday; coaches including Coastal Carolina’s Allen Terrell; and especially DJ’s grandmother, Carole Jones, whose unexpected death in 2009 seemed to knock him off-course for a time, during which he was stopped for DUI the week before his first Masters appearance.
Later, two absences from the PGA Tour – self-imposed for “personal issues” or unannounced Tour drug suspensions, take your pick – raised more questions about maturity, and professionalism. Yet his second hiatus, and the then-impending birth of his son, seemed to grab Johnson’s attention and put him on the path to success.
And thus we came to Oakmont, most difficult and diabolical of all U.S. Open venues. DJ, four shots back on Sunday morning, had to overtake leader Shane Lowry (who helped with a 76), hold off a host of other contenders and, infamously, outscore the USGA, which left Johnson contemplating a possible one-stroke penalty starting at the 12th hole.
Given Johnson’s history, that last one seemed likely to be yet another freakish obstacle that would derail his victory. It did not. Nothing this day could.
Yes, opponents faltered, but no one handed him the title so much as he grabbed it with both hands. Clutch putts – supposedly his biggest weakness – saved pars on the 16th and 17th holes, and his laser-like 6-iron approach to five feet for birdie at the 18th added an exclamation mark to his victory for the ages.
“It couldn’t be any better,” Johnson told reporters afterward. “I think it’s well deserved. After everything that I’ve been through in the majors … I’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times. To finally get that major win, it’s huge. It gets me a lot more confidence going into every major to know that I can win.
“It’s a big monkey off my back for sure.” And what was that like? “I feel a lot lighter,” he said, finally grinning.
South Carolina’s golfing wild child – now even more self-confident and unburdened by past near-misses – is a fearsome thing for the PGA Tour to contemplate. And Johnson’s arrival in the circle of major champions is as much a triumph of DJ over himself as it is over the competition.
“Yeah, obviously, I’m different,” he said. “I’ve grown up a lot. Having a son and starting a family has definitely made me grow up a lot.
“But I felt like I’ve handled myself very well in the past in the majors. (I) just didn’t quite get over that hump. Today … I finally did.”
Winkle, agent and confidant, wrote in a Monday email: “Words cannot describe how proud I am of him, for so many reasons.”
Those of us who’ve followed DJ all those years, when he never had it easy, know just how Winkle feels.
A look at the South Carolina players who have won majors:
S.C. ties: Club pro at Country Club of Charleston and Yeaman’s Hall
Majors won: 1938 Masters and 1939 PGA
S.C. ties: Greenville/ Clemson
Major won: 2009 U.S. Open
S.C. ties: Columbia/Coastal Carolina
Major won: 2016 U.S. Open