Dustin Johnson is, in the eyes of most observers, one of the most naturally talented players in golf. Few can boast his consistency; heading into 2015, he has claimed wins in every season he’s been on the PGA Tour.
But the 30-year-old South Carolina native is in a different place than he’s been in many years. It’s almost as if his career is just getting started.
He’s a first-time father to Tatum, his son with Paulina Gretzky. His recent six-month sabbatical from competitive golf — although bittersweet, as he missed the PGA Championship, FedExCup Playoffs, and Ryder Cup — has produced a renewed vigor and passion for the game he loves.
Johnson says he’s in as good a place emotionally as he’s ever been. That news should be a caution to the rest of the Tour. This long-hitting machine is rested and ready for what he hopes is the best stretch of his career. Athlon contributor Garrett Johnston recently sat down with Johnson to get his thoughts.
We have high expectations for you this year. What are your expectations for yourself? Do you have specific goals for 2015?
I expect to play very well this year. I feel like my game is really good. I definitely think I’m going to have a really great year. I’ve been working hard on my game, on my fitness, so I expect to play very well this year. I think I will. Obviously last week (at the Farmers Insurance Open) was my first week back. I’ve got to get back in the swing of things.
I’d like to think I can contend every week. I was expecting to (at Torrey Pines) and I felt, obviously, if I could have made some putts I’m right in it.
You have an active streak of having won in each of your seasons on Tour. How important is it to you to keep that streak going?
I don’t really look at it as a streak. I kind of expect to win, and so I have. I like to win, and I’ve only had one year where I’ve won twice. So I’d like to get multiple victories in a year. And it’ll come. I think the way things are going now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened (this year) with everything re-prioritized.
With the baby, I’m a lot more organized, and I have a bit more of a routine with my life. It’s been good. A lot more discipline, even for myself. You’ve actually got to plan a little bit ahead now.
What did you learn about yourself in your time away from the Tour?
I learned a lot. Most of all, learning more about myself, kind of how I work. So I did a lot of that, a lot of soul-searching, and then obviously most of what I did was getting my priorities straight. With Paulina being pregnant, I was just trying to get my life in order and get ready to be a father so that when it came time I was. And I am. That was most important. Just being prepared for a child — that was my main goal. It wasn’t golf-oriented; it was more personal, wanting to be there and be a role model for my son. So it was just getting those things in order.
What’s changed for you as far as your approach to the game? Have you changed the way you practice and prepare?
I’m just more disciplined at it. I feel like the game is there. I haven’t really changed anything. I’m just working more on the fitness. As far as with golf, I haven’t really changed anything.
Doing my routines everyday. Keeping up the routine week in and week out. I ride the bike a lot, I work out the whole body. Last year it was more get in the gym and do warm-ups every day, stretch after my round, but I wasn’t really religious about doing it all the time and working out after the rounds and stuff, especially in my off weeks. I wasn’t very good at it. So now I’m to where I’m doing it all the time whether I’m playing or not. I work out after every round usually for an hour.
Do you consider yourself a contender at the 2015 Masters?
Oh yeah, I think so. I really like Augusta National. Obviously, I haven’t played great there, but I feel like my game is getting to where — you know, I finished good two years ago. But I love the golf course. It fits my eye great. To me, over there it’s all about putting and chipping. You’ve got to putt and chip it well. Learning those greens is pretty hard. But it’s getting there — I’m starting to learn them. I feel like I play well there; I just haven’t put it all together that week. Hopefully this year I will.
How is your mental/physical health?
Everything is probably the best it’s ever been, so I mean as far as health, physically I feel great, mentally great. I’m just in a really good place right now on both levels.
Were you nervous when you stepped onto a tee for the first time at Torrey Pines? Did the competitive juices start flowing again immediately?
Oh yeah, I was definitely nervous for sure. I was nervous most of the day. It was just getting back in there, I was rusty. So it was just getting back into the swing of things. I’m always nervous when I go to the first tee — every time.
Do you feel like you could have made a difference on the 2014 Ryder Cup team?
Yeah, I would have loved to have been there. I love playing golf over there in Britain and I enjoy the creativity of it. We all want to be a part of a winning team. It’s not just me, the whole team. We desperately want to win. We’ve lost the last few. It’s unacceptable.
I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I’m on that team (in 2016).
How helpful was Paulina during your time off?
She was great. She’s been awesome the whole time. Just being there for me, giving me a lot of support — she’s been great. She’s awesome, a lot of fun to be around, a good person. So it’s been great being with her. I got to spend a lot of time with her, especially through her pregnancy, and to be there with her and be there for her. It’s been great.
Congratulations on the birth of your son. When the time comes as he grows up, might you nudge him toward playing sports, specifically golf?
Obviously I’ll try to get him into golf, but he can play whatever he wants. Or he doesn’t have to play anything. I don’t care, it’s up to him. Hopefully yes, hopefully he’ll play sports. I hope he’ll be a golfer. I would imagine he’ll pay sports, but if he doesn’t it’s alright.
With Paulina being pregnant, I was just trying to get my life in order and get ready to be a father so that when it came time I was (ready). And I am.
Are you satisfied with how the Tour handled everything regarding your sabbatical?
Yeah, I think it went great. I’m satisfied with everything. Everything is great, I’m happy.
Nothing bothered you about it?
— Garrett Johnston
This interview appears in the 2015 edition of Athlon Sports Golf Annual. Order your copy here.