Watching Dustin Johnson hit soaring drives is like watching Picasso paint. It’s what he was born to do, an act of effortless genius. And now, the rest of his game — including the part that resides between the ears — seems to be catching up with Johnson’s prodigious talents off the tee.
Johnson is building an enviable resume. He enters the meat of the 2013-14 schedule as the PGA Tour’s biggest winner still in his 20s, a distinction he’ll hold until his 30th birthday on June 22. With eight career wins, the Columbia, S.C., native is one of only three players under the age of 30 with four or more PGA Tour wins; Rory McIlroy (six) and Webb Simpson (four) are the others. Johnson now has at least one PGA Tour victory in seven consecutive seasons (2008-current); only Phil Mickelson (10 consecutive years) has a longer active streak. (Tiger Woods had a 14-year winning streak from 1996-2009.) Johnson is the first player since Tiger (1996-2002) to win in his first seven consecutive seasons straight out of college (2008-current).
Johnson plans to fill the one remaining gap in his career ledger — a major championship — very soon. Athlon sat down with the Tour’s top power hitter to talk majors, Cups (Ryder and FedEx) and playing golf with The Great One.
You’re known as one of the real athletes on Tour. What role does athleticism play in the game today?
For me, I think golf is becoming more athletic. If you see the generations coming out now, both my generation and all the younger guys who are coming out, they’re all tall and big and strong. The breed of golfer now is just a lot bigger and stronger. Golf has definitely become a lot cooler for high school athletes to take up. Over the last 15-20 years, even the last five years, golf has become a cool sport to play.
Did Tiger play the key role in that?
For sure. There’s not one golfer who can’t thank Tiger for everything he’s done. He’s really made the game popular, and he’s made the game cool to play.
Clearly, the next step in your career is winning a major. You’ve had some painful near-misses. Have those left any scar tissue, or will you be better prepared for the moment next time?
When you fail, or something doesn’t go right, you learn a lot more about yourself than when it does go right. You always learn more from your mistakes. Those situations have helped me in my career. Majors are tough, and if you’re not spot-on, you’re not going to play very well. You’ve got to put four good rounds together. In China (at the WGC-HSBC in November) was one of the first times I played good four days. Got off to a bad start the first day, but turned it around and played really well the rest of the way, and then played really good on Friday and Saturday. I made a couple mistakes on Saturday, but played really good golf. And then on Sunday, I got off to a bad start, but then played exceptionally well after that. It was really the first time where I felt like I played well the whole time.
So you know what it takes now for a major.
Right. To win a major, you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to play four good days of golf.
You’d take any of them, but is there one major you’d value over the others?
For me, it’ll always be Augusta. I grew up an hour away from there. As a little kid on the putting green, it was never putts to win the U.S. Open. Living so close to Augusta, it was always putting on the putting green to win The Masters.
Do you feel like The Masters sets up well for your game?
I think it does. I like putting on fast greens, and the greens at Augusta are always fast. It’s a big golf course, and you have to drive it well there. It’s crucial to control your distance. It’s one of those courses, the more you play it, the more you learn. You learn something new every time you play at Augusta. There are just certain spots you cannot hit it. I think it definitely sets up well for me. I definitely think I’ll contend there.
It’s a Ryder Cup year, and the Ryder Cup obviously means a lot to you.
It’s just so different than what we’re used to, and so much fun. We enjoy everything about it — the dinners, the camaraderie, the team room. For me, being on the last two Ryder Cup teams, we lost both of them, and I did play well in the last one — I was 3–0 — but it’s a team event. It doesn’t matter how well I played, the team has to play well. I could have gone 5–0, and it doesn’t matter, and we lost. It sucks, especially going into singles with the lead we had. You can ask anybody who was on that team — it still stings.
Is the pressure a different kind of pressure?
It’s a completely different kind of pressure. But it’s so much fun. You’ve got your whole country rooting for you. It’s really a cool feeling. It’s really intense. You can’t describe it.
You called the WGC-HSBC in November 2013 the biggest win of your career thus far. The leaderboard on Sunday at the HSBC was basically you and half the European Ryder Cup team. It had to feel pretty good to stand up to those guys.
In that moment, I wasn’t really thinking about that, but obviously, I could see the leaderboard, and every player that was on it was a top-25 golfer in the world. It was a who’s who of a leaderboard on Sunday. For me to play that well coming down the stretch to win was very important to me, very important for my confidence, just to know and believe in myself that I can do that. It’s special.
That day, you got off to kind of a slow start while the guys you were playing with (Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell) were on fire out of the chute, erasing your three-shot lead.
At that moment, there’s all kinds of thoughts going through your head. "Oh, no. Am I really going to do this?" I’m like, alright, we’re starting over. It’s Sunday, I’m one back and have 14 holes to play. Let’s see how good I can play. Let’s show these guys how good I am. I had to change my mindset.
Any opinion on the Brandel Chamblee-Tiger Woods controversy?
Honestly, I haven’t even seen it (Chamblee’s article insinuating that Woods was guilty of cheating in his brushes with the Rules of Golf in 2013). I’ve heard from guys what happened, but I don’t really pay attention.
Do guys care what analysts say about them?
It obviously depends on the person. I don’t watch the Golf Channel. It doesn’t bother me. People are entitled to their own opinion, I’ve got mine, they’ve got theirs. My opinion matters more than theirs.
How important is the FedExCup?
It’s really important. There’s 10 million reasons why it’s important. I think the first year, it’s like anything, guys were like, what is this? But now I think everyone really likes it. They’ve got it to a system that works. I think it’s great for the PGA Tour and the game of golf. You get a lot more interest, and you’re starting to see a lot more of the top Europeans playing the U.S. Tour because they want to play the FedExCup.
That brings up the global nature of the game. Do you anticipate playing more overseas?
That’s hard to say. I’m playing more overseas than I used to. My first few years out, I don’t think I played overseas at all, but the game’s definitely gotten more global. I definitely will be playing overseas, but you can only play so much. A few times a year.
When you really cut loose, how far can you hit a drive?
When I’m on the launch monitor, when I’m swinging really hard, which I never do on a golf course, I can get one 330-335 in the air. A normal swing when I’m on the golf course, it’s going to fly maybe 300. Anywhere between 290 and 300. Obviously, I can step it up once in a while and maybe fly one 310. But I never like swinging with that mindset. I don’t want to hit it hard. Maybe when I’m on the driving range and just goofing around I’ll smash ‘em sometimes for fun. But on a golf course, I might swing 85 to 90 percent at the highest.
Other than the driver, what’s your favorite club in the bag?
That’s a tough one. I like all my clubs. When I was growing up, you’d have a club like a 7-iron, or a 9-iron, that you hit better, where even if it was an 8-iron shot, I’d hit 7, or if it was a 6-iron, I’d hammer a 7 because I liked it. But now, there’s not one club I like more. My putter, maybe my 60 degree, my 3-wood. But I like them all. TaylorMade does a great job. I’ve got zero complaints. They’ve been very good to me, and they make the best equipment. I only need 10 or 11 clubs, I don’t need to play 13, but I have 13 of them. Every one of my professional wins has come with the same putter (a Scotty Cameron for Titleist Newport 2 Prototype). Every once in a while it’s got to sit in time-out, though (laughs). I bring out that white TaylorMade to get its attention and let it know who’s boss.
You played college golf at Coastal Carolina, not a traditional golf powerhouse. What role did that experience with coach Allen Terrell have in making you the player you are?
When I was looking at colleges, I remember it was the first week of summer, and I was going to the beach, and I passed by Coastal Carolina. I thought, that looks like it would be a fun school to go to. I called up the coach and sent him a resume. He called me back the next day and said, “Can we meet?” I went and met him. It was definitely a lifestyle change, but Coach Terrell has played a big part in my success, as a person and as a golfer. I don’t know what we were ranked my freshman year, but it wasn’t very good, maybe 100. Then I think by the end of my freshman year we were maybe in the 70s, then my sophomore year we got into the top 25, and my junior and senior year were top 10. So we became a powerhouse. He was really disciplined. Obviously, I tried to bend the rules as much as possible, so the whole time I was in school, we knocked heads. But I understood. It was what I needed — someone that wouldn’t put up with the BS. He helped me tremendously. Going to Coastal was the best thing I ever did — the best decision I ever made.
What first got you interested in the game?
My dad was a head pro at a golf course when I was little. Me and my brother would go to the golf course with him. Especially in the summer, we’d go every day. We had a swimming pool there, so we’d go play 18 holes, go to the pool, then go back out and play 18 more. Since my brother played too, it was fun for us to play together. Also, there was a driving range right by my house that my dad’s buddy owned. I’d be there until 10 o’clock at night.
Have you gotten Paulina (fiancée Paulina Gretzky) interested in golf?
No. She’ll go hit a ball or two every once in a while, but it’s not her thing.
Your future father-in-law (hockey legend Wayne Gretzky) can play, though.
Yeah, he’s a pretty good stick. He can shoot 74, or he can shoot 85. We’ve played a lot of golf together. He’s got game, for sure, and he’s fun to play with. We have a good time.
You’re joining the family of somebody who’s considered the greatest ever to play his sport. Is that inspiring? Intimidating? Does he still have the "Great One" aura?
Yeah, he does. I think just being around him and seeing how he handles everything and how he conducts himself and the way he treats people. He’s the greatest hockey player to ever play, and he probably will always be. Just to see the way he carries himself, and how nice he is to people. It takes a special person to be that way, and he does it better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He couldn’t be a nicer, more down-to-earth guy. When I’m out there we go play golf almost every day, and we’ll go the club and have a beer. It’s just fun.
Goals for 2014?
Definitely be more consistent. Contend more. I just want in 2014 to try to get better each week. Just put myself in position to try to win on Sundays. The more times you do that, the more you win. I need to contend in the majors, too. The majors are definitely something I’m looking forward to in 2014.
You’re known for your skills on the basketball court. If you were picking the Tour basketball team, who are some of the other athletes out there?
I’d have Gary Woodland on my team. Probably Kooch (Matt Kuchar). Me. We’re going tall; Gary can run point. There are just so many guys coming out now who are athletic and can play other sports. Keegan (Bradley) is pretty athletic. Even Sergio (Garcia) — you know, Sergio doesn’t play basketball, but he’s a really good soccer player and loves to play. It’s just a different breed of golfers today. Keegan can shoot a little bit. I don’t get to play that much any more. Ever since I had my knee surgery, I’ve stayed off the court. I love it, and I want to play, and I’ll go shoot around some. I used to play pick-up games, but I just don’t do it anymore.
How do guys typically unwind and recreate?
It depends on the person. For me, I like going on the boat, whether I’m going fishing or just going out and having a beer, cruising around and listening to music. That’s something I really enjoy doing. On Saturdays and Sundays, watching football.
Looking way ahead, 20 years from now, what kind of career numbers would you want to look back at and say, I’ve had the kind of career I envisioned?
I’ve never really thought about it. I want to look back and know that I helped grow the game of golf and had a career that people respect. One of my ultimate goals is to get to that 20-win mark. Once you get there, then you can look past that, but right now, getting there means you’re a lifetime member, and it does a lot of things for you. If I do get there, once I get there, then I’ll re-evaluate.