To see Dustin Johnson holding the FedEx Cup, uncharacteristically wide smile beneath a full, well-kept beard, is to see the finished product, one that’s come off the assembly line after sufficient R&D and plenty of modifications.
Johnson has been properly built for the weekly rigors of tournament golf. He’s always had the engine to hang with the sport’s elite — a booming driver — but through time honed his ability to aerodynamically deflect the negative while staying focused on the finish line.
On Monday, when he was named the 2019-20 PGA Tour Player of the Year, marking the second time in five years he’s won the award, Johnson already put the FedEx Cup victory behind him, even though one of his career’s crowning achievements — and an elite stretch of golf — was barely in the rearview mirror.
But to truly appreciate the new DJ model is to understand how his FedEx Cup journey came to pass. As with most of the accomplishments in Johnson’s career, it came from a setback. A self-inflicted setback. Johnson remembers it well.
He was on the 18th hole of the 2008 Barclays, the first event of the FedEx Cup playoff’s second season, and all that stood between him and the next event was a simple four-footer, something he’d practiced a million times before. Instead of dropping the short putt and moving on to the next week, he horseshoed it, lipping out and missing the subsequent Deutsche Bank Championship.
Johnson left hurt, but determined, a look he’s worn well ever since.
“I went back to Myrtle Beach and practiced. A lot,” he told Golfweek during an exclusive one-on-one prior to this week’s U.S. Open. “I kept practicing and was determined to come back and compete even harder. A few weeks later, it happened.”
Just six weeks removed from the missed putt, he went on to his first victory at the Turning Stone Resort Championship, and the wins have been consistently coming ever since — 23 of them to be exact.
In an era of social media roasts, product-endorsement strategy and sound bytes, Johnson might have slid somewhat underappreciated under the radar. Golfweek had a full heart-to-heart with DJ about life with Paulina, an injury that he thought might derail his season, and what’s left ahead.
GOLFWEEK: First, congrats on an amazing stretch of golf. Is your head out of the clouds yet?
DUSTIN JOHNSON: I got to celebrate a little with Paulina and the kids. I didn’t really get too much time, but it was a nice week. Obviously it’s been a great five weeks, it’s been a lot of fun, and to be out there competing every week and that’s why I’m out there, that’s what I enjoy doing is competing. But it’s been special, now it’s time to get back to work.
GW: The return to golf didn’t go too well for you — you missed the cut in Fort Worth. Did you have any idea this stretch was ahead of you?
DJ: Going into Fort Worth, as I was getting ready for Colonial, I was playing the Bear’s Club with my brother and on the first hole I went out and hit a tee shot and felt something in my knee. I had surgery in the fall last year and it felt right like it did when I was coming out of surgery, so now this happens a week before I’m leaving to go to Fort Worth. So I didn’t get to practice for a whole week leading up to that, at least not like I wanted to, my knee was giving me a little bit of trouble.
I got worked on by my physio, but as I got to Fort Worth, it was still bothering me. If that would have been any other week, say during a normal season, I wouldn’t have played. But since I hadn’t played in three months, it was one of those things where I felt like I had to.
I came home and got an MRI afterward and found it wasn’t my knee, that had healed up great. I had strained a tendon, which ended up, well, it’s fine now. That really gave me piece of mind that everything was good. I got back to training, obviously, and it just got better from there.
GW: Then, you win at Travelers, but you fall apart at the Memorial. What happened there?
DJ: I can’t tell you. It’s like everything that could go wrong, went wrong. I wasn’t focused mentally, I guess. I can’t even tell you what went wrong. I sat down, got a little reset, and went from there and obviously things have worked out.
GW: You moved to the new TaylorMade SIM, and seen pretty outstanding results. Any significance?
DJ: They do a great job and the driver has been great, I’ve even used a couple hybrids, but the driver’s been really great for me, I’ve been driving it really well. And that’s the big piece for me, if I’m driving it well, I’m probably going to contend every week.
GW: Talk a little about your confidence level heading into Winged Foot. Obviously, the talk is about how difficult this course will play. You’ve never competed there. What do you expect?
DJ: I’ve never played there at all, so I know it’s very hard, but very fair. It’s like Oakmont, it’s right in front of you. It’s just hard. Those are the kind of golf courses I like playing. I’ve been doing this for long enough now, where I know how to work with it. Olympia Fields, I’d never been there, and I didn’t get a lot of prep time, but that worked well. I enjoy playing new golf courses, especially really hard ones.
GW: Speaking of Olympia Fields, you bury an amazing putt and watch as Jon Rahm hits a longer one. Does that stick with you? And do you handle that better now than you might have as a younger player?
DJ: It’s just golf. I didn’t give him the tournament. So it wasn’t anything for me to get upset about, or anything for me to get over. He made an absolutely incredible putt. It’s golf and that happens. With the FedEx Cup playoffs there wasn’t really any time to worry about what happened. You go out and try to win the next week. And that’s what I did.
And I’ll trade that BMW Championship for a FedEx Cup any day.
GW: Talk about your relationship with Paulina’s dad, Wayne Gretzky. Obviously, this is someone who knows what it’s like to complete under pressure.
DJ: I’m very close with all of the Gretzkys. It’s great to be able to just listen. I’ve learned so much from Wayne, just watching the way he acts and the way he treats other people. His dad, Walter, is unbelievable,. He might be more popular than Wayne. But obviously, with Wayne, it’s great to have someone who dominated their sport the way he did for such a long period of time.
GW: I think everyone agrees determination is one of your strong suits — even when you’ve had low moments you’ve found a way to channel those things and work hard and get better. How have you done that?
DJ: You learn a lot more from when failures or situations where you don’t win, than the situations where you do. I try to take positives out of every situation and see what I can do to improve.
GW: You’re somewhat quiet. I’ve been in interview rooms with you and you’re a personable guy, but you’re not the flamboyant personality that some guys on Tour are. Do you think sometimes you get a little mislabeled because of that?
DJ: That’s just me. I think some guys put their foot in their mouth a lot and some just don’t do that. I’m just me. That’s all I’ll always try to be and I don’t try to be anything different.
GW: That’s been pretty well-received, right?
DJ: I think so.
GW: You’ve got two kiddos, Tatum and River, and I know what that did to my life. We all made a big deal about Rory becoming dad, but he’s in a different place in his life right now, his head is probably spinning. Your kids are getting to that age, they’re a little older that and you’ve probably settled into a routine. What’s it like now, being a dad, and what do they add to your life?
DJ: The best thing in the world is having kids. We’re lucky to have two wonderful boys. It’s really been amazing, watching them grow up and enjoying the time. They get to travel with us a bunch. Tatum’s in kindergarten. They’re getting a little older. And I can see a little of me and Paulina in both of them, just in their personalities and the things they do. It’s funny. There are times when you watch them and say, ‘Where in the heck did you learn that?’ and then you realize, oh man, it’s from me.
GW: Has it changed you?
DJ: Absolutely. it puts things in perspective. For me, golf was always the most important thing. And now, it’s Paulina and the kids. And they’ll always be the most important. Obviously, I love the game of golf, competing and playing. But they’re the most important thing.
GW: Let’s talk fitness. This has become a hotter topic with Bryson and others, but fitness and working out has always been essential for you, right?
DJ: Any athlete, professional athlete, across any sport, diet and training are a huge part of it. If you look at the top 10 guys in the world, they all train, they all work on their diet, it’s just something you have to do. With training and diet, probably the biggest thing I’ve changed is when I’m on the road I rent a house and I have a chef who comes and cooks for me so I can keep everything the same.
It’s a lot to stay in shape and be ready for four days each week. The thing people probably don’t understand is the amount of work I put in to get where I am. I don’t think most people have any idea how much time I spend in the gym, practicing, playing. And diet’s really important, too.
GW: Finally, let’s talk about Paulina and how your relationship has evolved.
DJ: She’s a huge part of me, our family and my success. She’s home with the kids, and has been great with that, and just has been a huge supporter for me, with everything I need to do. She understands everything it takes to get to where you want to be and the sacrifices you have to make. Having her dad as the greatest hockey player, she understands.
You couldn’t ask for a better partner.
GW: What’s left? What do you feel you need to still accomplish?
DJ: I need to keep practicing and continue to get better. There are things I want to do with my career, I’d love a green jacket and a few more majors, doesn’t matter which ones they are. A green jacket would definitely be at the top of the list. But any major’s a good one.