Dustin Johnson’s current life is relatively placid but his past has included such turbulent chapters as a stolen murder gun, drug use and alcohol abuse.
At 32 years of age, this strapping 1.93-metre lad from Columbia (South Carolina) enjoys a privileged position atop the world rankings and on the US PGA Tour. This season he has already won nearly $4 million ($1 million less than the value of his home in Palm Beach, Florida, complete with its own jetty). Last year he collected more than $9 million in prizemoney alone, and he is currently awaiting the birth of a second child with his partner, model Paulina Gretzky, daughter of ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky.
It would be fair to say that Dustin Johnson is a blissfully happy man at the moment. After two wins this season (at the time of going to press in March, following his victory in the World Golf Championship tournament in Mexico), two thirds and one sixth-place finish, and his rise to the summit of both the world and US Tour rankings, it is clear that this year he is destined to remain one of the sport’s pacesetting global stars.
Johnson is, together with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods (among others), one of the few players to have won at least once in each of his first 10 seasons on the Tour.
Nevertheless, life has not always smiled kindly on DJ, as he is popularly known. His past has not exactly been imperturbable and there are certain episodes that he would, if he could, surely delete from his record.
The first and arguably most scandalous occurred when he was still a teenager and almost ended up in gaol. He was reportedly coerced by a friend’s older brother into buying bullets for a stolen gun. The weapon was subsequently used in a murder and, although Johnson was pardoned, the incident left its mark.
In an interview with Golf.com in 2011, he said he had never really had any relationship with the people involved. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I sat down with myself afterward, looked in the mirror and realised, ‘This is not who I am, not what I want to be.’ I wanted to go to college. I wanted to play golf. It was an easy decision, getting back on the right path. I didn't want to throw all this good stuff away.”
He did continue on the right path… until another episode darkened his journey. PGA Tour officials tried to cover it up with some euphemistic language describing his absence from competition for six months in 2014 as a “voluntary leave of absence”, and his management team said he was undergoing “personal struggles”. In reality, according to sources, he had failed a drug test, for cocaine, following previous tests in 2009 and 2012 detecting cocaine and marijuana use.
Johnson never disclosed the reasons for his “suspension”, denied consuming cocaine and said his withdrawal from competition was related to alcohol abuse, as he dealt with stress. “I tried to get over it by drinking and partying,” he said, adding that he had referred himself to experts in an effort to learn how to handle pressure and risk situations.
If he needed any more seasoning for his already complicated existential repast, a Fox journalist wrote that it was no great secret that Johnson had enjoyed sexual affairs with the wives of two PGA Tour players, one of whom had filed for divorce as a result of the thorny matter being revealed.
Observing this disturbing situation when Johnson started going out with Paulina, her father Wayne gave him an ultimatum: improve his behaviour or end the relationship. And so far it seems as though Johnson is honouring that commitment.
Tumultuous personal life aside, the world’s top-ranked golfer is enjoying a dream existence on the fairways. After making it to the Olympus of golf by winning a first major last year (the US Open at Oakmont), the big-hitting Johnson (his average drive is 316.2 yards and he has hit the longest recorded drive so far this season, 428 yards) is in magnificent form.
In the seven tournaments he competed in up to March, he won three, finished third in two others and was sixth in another. Last season on the PGA Tour he won three times and had 12 other top-10 finishes, including a second and two third places. He accumulated $9.3 million in prizemoney and was a member of the US Ryder Cup team that beat the Americans.
His nearest rivals this year have been Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama, who early in March were ahead of him on in the FedEx Cup order of merit, before Johnson won the World Golf Championship Dell Match Play to move to number one, and seventh and fourth, respectively, in the world ranking. After nine events, Thomas had won three times and finished in the top-10 on two other occasions, while Matsuyama had won two titles and finished second twice in his eight starts.
Apparently, Johnson’s responsibilities as a father (his first child was born in January 2015 and Paulina is pregnant with their second) have put this hugely talented golfer’s life back on the right track. Time will tell if it is permanent.