His nickname is Cheetah.
He might be the most physically gifted player in the world.
He's on everyone's short list of Augusta favorites.
And, if anyone has a Masters in getting on with it, it's Dustin Johnson, who has better bounce-back stats, lifetime, than Lazarus.
Watch him more and you can see where the nickname comes from. Lean muscles roping just beneath the skin, a tuft of hair under his lower lip and a set of sideburns that would make Elvis Presley jealous, Johnson ambles across a golf course as if it was his personal savannah, in an unconcerned, oily jointed, big cat walk. He got tagged with the name by a friend of Nick Watney's, a little guy who came up to the 6-foot-4 Johnson one day at Cog Hill G&CC and said to him, "Man, you look like a freaking cheetah out there, like you could run down a gazelle, kill it, eat it and just walk away." It stuck.
Phil Mickelson's caddie, Jim Mackay, is an unabashed fan. "I think he could win 30 or 40 events," says Bones of Johnson. "I think, conservatively, he is one of the five most talented players in the game and that, in golfing terms, he's wise beyond his years. This guy could dominate. We all know there's a tremendous number of really good young players right now but, as great as those players are, in my opinion, none of them have more raw ability than Dustin."
Johnson is coached by Butch Harmon and mentored by Mickelson. Neither comes cheap. Harmon, of course, has a résumé like no other living instructor. Greg Norman, Tiger Woods and Mickelson have all benefited from his no-frills talk and his fine-tune rather than re-forge teaching method. Butch agreed to help DJ – his other moniker – after pointing at the same bowed left wrist and closed clubface at the top that appears in a photo of his father, Claude, the 1948 Masters champion, hanging in the first hitting bay of Harmon's teaching center in Las Vegas. "I told him I’ve seen somebody who played really good from there," said Harmon.
And there are no scholarships at the University of Phil. Johnson and Mickelson play weekday games for the kind of money that even gets their attention. "I like playing with Dustin a lot," says Mickelson. "I like the way he plays without fear, and I like the way he takes on all challenges. He doesn't run or hide from anything. He doesn't hide from any game that we might play. I find that when he gets in contention and has opportunities to win, he's going for the win, he’s not running from that opportunity." What Phil doesn't like quite as much is that, according to Harmon, Johnson has gotten into his pocket. What he hasn't gotten into is the thick notebook Mickelson keeps on Augusta National's greens. "I asked him to look at it, and he wouldn't let me," says Johnson with a laugh. Apparently, that particular seminar remains fully subscribed this semester.
It's Johnson's sleek, fast-twitch power that has elevated him to a chic pick in the Masters, even though everyone knows, to paraphrase the political bromide, it's the greens, stupid. Still, the new Augusta requires a more precise application of power than it once did, and Johnson, who has finished T-30 and T-38 in his two Masters starts, is on the short list of players who can produce megawatts of it. In 2009 he became just the second player to make four eagles in a single Masters. That other big cat, Tiger Woods, joined Johnson and Bruce Crampton, who did it in 1974, last year. "The golf course doesn't take driver out of my hand," Johnson says tersely as he munches some chipotle-flavored hot wings on a patio in the Sonoran desert. He says he hits driver on the third hole every day, unless the pin is dead front. Might hit a 3-wood on the fifth, but only if it's downwind. On the 13th he launches a driver as high as he can over the trees at the corner of the dogleg. "This is an important year," he says, wiping his fingers with a cloth napkin. "I need to play well this year."
Johnson opened the season with a top-10 at Kapalua. Then, on his way to a T-3 at Torrey Pines, his driver started making strange noises. He couldn't find a crack but, like a parent with a sniffling child who is starting to come down with something more serious, Johnson knew it wasn't right. And it wasn't until the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, where he was overtaken on Sunday by his buddy, Watney, also a Harmon pupil, that he finally got it resolved. Early in the week, he found a driver head he liked nearly as much as the one he started the year with, had it re-shafted, a nip here, a tuck there, and by Saturday night he was enjoying the fruits of a third-round 65 and a two-stroke lead.
It was an uncooperative putter that stymied Johnson in Miami. And, for as celebrated as his "unfortunate situation" (which is the only way he ever refers to the two-stroke penalty he got on the 72nd hole in last year’s PGA Championship) was at Whistling Straits, he didn't make anything that day, either, until the 17th. If a few 10- to 15-footers had found the hole on the front nine, he could have grounded his club in a Sheboygan roll and still won. In Wales at the Ryder Cup, partnered with Mickelson, the putter was as cold as Mount Snowdon in a hailstorm. He didn't make anything until the back nine of his singles match against Martin Kaymer, but when they started going in, it was as torrential as the Welsh rain, and Johnson won, 6 and 4. Is he a streaky putter? "No. Not really. I generally putt well all the time," he says, dropping the napkin on top of the plate of chicken bones. "What time does it get dark here? Talking about how bad my putting is makes me want to go practice."
The last 10 months have been, well, eventful. Last June, on Sunday at Pebble Beach, he kicked a U.S. Open to the curb. Two months later at Whistling Straits, it was a PGA. In October it was the Ryder Cup. In January it was Natalie Gulbis. And, in February at Riviera CC, he got the wrong tee time from his caddie, Bobby Brown, had to sprint to the first tee to catch up with his playing partners, Steve Stricker and D.A. Points, pulled something in his left hip running up the hill, got slapped with a two-stroke penalty when he got there and then was accosted in the middle of his round by Jim Gray, the television announcer, who was asking questions when he shouldn't have been, thereby establishing an entirely new metric for measuring player displeasure (if you can tick off Steve Stricker, you know you've screwed up).
For some players, this could be misadventure enough for an entire career. Athletes have been slammed in digits and pixels and on paper for a lot less. And yet, in the case of Johnson, who will turn 27 the week after this year's U.S. Open at Congressional CC, it's more evidence of how truly resilient a young man he is. Nothing fazes a cheetah.
Gary Woodland is one of Johnson's contemporaries and may be the only guy on the PGA Tour who's a better basketball player, having played the sport on the Division II level before transferring to Kansas to play golf. "We've said we’d gladly play any other two guys out here. Dustin’s got the height. I'll shoot it outside," jokes Woodland. "The one thing I think that separates Dustin from everybody else is his attitude. He lets everything go so easily. Talk about moving on to the next shot. When that happened at the PGA Championship, I told somebody he will win in the next couple of weeks. If anybody can get over that, it's him." The win came at the BMW Championship at Cog Hill, Johnson's fourth victory on tour and just the third tournament after his "unfortunate situation."
When Johnson struggled and got too quick under the weight of the U.S. Open and two months later was penalized in the PGA, a lot of people pointed a finger at his caddie, Brown. Not DJ. "I don’t blame anybody for anything I do," says Johnson. "It’s no one’s fault but mine." After his 82 the final day of the U.S. Open, Johnson drove up to San Jose, caught a redeye flight home, commercial, and slept the whole way.
"It’s perfect Dustin," says Allen Terrell, Johnson's former coach at Coastal Carolina in Conway, S.C., near Myrtle Beach. "That’s how he just shrugs it off and keeps moving. He doesn’t stop and think much about it. Everything he goes through helps prepare him for his next challenge. The U.S. Open, you could tell, helped him at Chicago when he was slower, more calculated coming down the stretch."
As Mickelson, a man who could dissect a ramen noodle, says, "The great thing about Dustin is that he goes about his profession without over-complicating things."
Brown is standing in the caddie pen and Johnson comes out of the clubhouse and hands him two In-N-Out Double-Doubles for lunch. "You don’t think I work for the coolest guy out here?" Brown says. "He’s more of a friend than he is a player to me. We’ve been like brothers for about the last three years. We do everything together. I basically live with the guy now. He made me feel like part of the family."
Now that Johnson has moved his home from Myrtle Beach to Jupiter, Fla., the family was in attendance, en masse, at Doral. Johnson’s opening tee shot hit his grandfather, Art Whisnant, in the side of the head, thumping the bone just in front of his left ear, landing as stiff a blow as one of the elbows Whisnant would have been familiar with having starred on the South Carolina basketball team. By the time Johnson got to the ball, play had been halted for bad weather and the 70-year-old Whisnant had been hauled off to the hospital for a CAT scan. No harm was done, but it remained the perfect metaphor. No one can do quite as much damage, intentional or otherwise, as the people who love you.
Johnson had a difficult, delinquent adolescence in Columbia, S.C., stemming from a fractured home. He's been putting things behind him all his life. Now he's grown into the good ol' boy who bought life's winning lottery ticket down at the Pump 'N Munch. He's the adult in his extended family. And the person most capable of showing him how to handle the role, Carole Jones, the grandmother who saved him and raised him, is no longer alive to give him guidance. He's finding his way, sometimes awkwardly, on his own.
L'Affaire Natalie demonstrated just exactly how intensely private Johnson is about private matters. When it became obvious he and the glam Gulbis were being linked like a modern day Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert, Johnson wasted little time pulling the ripcord on his escape chute. The very notion that he would "handle the PR," as Gulbis was quoted, is a division of labor anyone who knows either Johnson or the media-savvy Gulbis would find laughable. Amanda Caulder, Johnson's pre-Gulbis girlfriend, was in his gallery again at Doral last month.
Johnson is gradually becoming comfortable with being known. When you have things in your past you don’t want to talk about, as he did, sometimes it’s easier not to say anything at all. He'll never be mistaken for the president of the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society, but his wariness is wearing off. In the wake of the PGA, he handled the penalty that kept him out of the playoff with such dignity that he received, literally, thousands of e-mails, texts, notes and letters. It was as if he suddenly came to realize all he needed to be was DJ. That would be good enough.
In addition to his on-going studies at Mickelson U., Johnson is working on finishing his degree at Coastal Carolina with the help of some online courses. "I think it's just a pride thing for Dustin," says Terrell. "He would like to see that thing up on his wall in his office. Most importantly, he wants to send a message because kids are important to him, and that's to graduate. When Dustin and I talked, that was the biggest reason. He could use it as a way of saying, 'I've got all the money, I don’t need to do this, but I did it anyway.' "
In the meantime, you'll likely have a chance to watch him just being DJ, running down a few stray championships as if green jackets and silver trophies were frightened gazelles.
- Natalie Gulbis