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(Editor’s note: This is Part III in a seven-part series on the life and career of reigning Masters champion Dustin Johnson. Check back to Golfweek.com each day for the next part of the story.)
Quicker than the puck hit the net off a slapshot during his iconic NHL career, Wayne Gretzky immediately wanted to make something clear.
“I am not the DJ Whisperer. I’m not some guru or anything like that for Dustin,” the Great One said. “People think I give him advice all the time. I don’t. I’m more like a grandfather, a father-in-law, a big brother. We just talk about the family, the kids, scheduling, TV shows, sports, just things most people talk about.
So, no, Gretzky does not take on the role of Albert Einstein lecturing an entry-level class attended by Johnson. Instead, Gretzky from time to time lays out crumbs that have helped Johnson find higher ground that included becoming No. 1 in the world and his smashing victory in the 2020 Masters.
“I’ve encouraged him to raise the bar, sure, to set higher goals, and I’ve talked to him about the commitment to pay the price to be the best,” Gretzky said. “He’s in his own world in golf and I’m not a golfer by any means, and he was top 10 before we ever met. I’ve never given him a lesson plan.”
Gretzky, who can hold his own on the golf course as a 10 handicapper, met Johnson in 2012 at a golf skills event for charity. They became much closer when Johnson began dating and then became engaged to Gretzky’s daughter, Paulina. And they’ve been frequent partners in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and playing companions at Sherwood Country Club in California.
“From the beginning I always thought he was a wonderful young man,” Gretzky said. “What fans don’t get is an opportunity to get to really know some of the guys in pro sports and there is a different perception of what people see on TV and what people really are and what they are truly about.
“In Dustin’s case, his demeanor away from the golf course is pretty much identical of what it is on the golf course. He never gets flustered, very easy going, extremely polite and very considerate. He was a joy to be around right from Day 1.”
Johnson said as much about Gretzky. The two hit it off immediately, in large part because they roll at a similar pace, share common interests, are extremely humble and their demeanors are very much alike.
“Wayne’s been great. He obviously has been a big supporter and believer in me,” Johnson said. “Having his support and just being able to spend a lot of time with him has been one of the best things ever. To listen to him, to see how he handles himself and what he did when he was playing and all the things he’s been through and done. That’s some pretty good experience to be around.
“He’s never gone, ‘Hey, Dustin, let’s sit down and talk for a bit.’ We spend a lot of time together talking about a lot of things and we play a lot of golf together. But we don’t talk about me doing this or doing that. There hasn’t been one specific thing he’s told me about something. The time, the quality of time, that we’ve gotten to spend together, means something.”
There was one time, however, when Gretzky made sure to drop some wisdom. One of Johnson’s crushing defeats came at the 2015 U.S. Open when he had a putt to win on the 72nd hole from 12 feet but missed. Then he had a putt from just over 3 feet to force a playoff but missed. He tapped in to complete a demoralizing three-putt and lose by one shot to Jordan Spieth.
“I grabbed him afterward and I told him I knew he wanted to get out of there but he needed to give the media 10 minutes and it would be the greatest 10 minutes he ever did,” Gretzky said. “I told him it’s easy to walk out of here with your tail between your legs, but you’ll be a bigger person and you’ll win over a lot of people by standing there and telling the truth. And tell them how much it hurts.
“And he did it.”
Dustin Johnson on the 18th green in the final round of the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. (Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
At the rental home that night, Johnson let out his emotions. Even though he did his best to put the defeat behind him as quickly as possible, it stung. Then he and Gretzky and a few others boarded a plane that night and headed to Coeur d’Alene in Idaho.
“A bunch of us were going to tee off at 8 a.m. Monday. He told me to wake him up,” Gretzky said. “I wasn’t going to wake him up, come on. He’d just lost the U.S. Open. Well, he was up the next day.”
And played golf with buddies for 21 consecutive days.
“Either you love this sport and have a passion for it, or you don’t. And Dustin truly loves golf,” Gretzky said. “But I told him if I had lost Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final, I promise you I wouldn’t be playing pickup hockey with my buddies the next three weeks.”
Speaking of the Stanley Cup, Gretzky won four of them with the Edmonton Oilers. But not one of those was won on the road. After celebrating Johnson’s Masters triumph last November, a small group of Johnson’s family, team and friends flew to Florida that night. On the flight, Gretzky pulled Johnson aside.
“I told him that one of the dreams I had as an athlete was to win a Stanley Cup on the road,” Gretzky said. “I never did, though. But that night while he’s wearing the green jacket, I told him I felt like I was part of a championship team.
“It was the trip I never got as an athlete. I retired at 39 and I never thought I’d get the feeling again of being part of a winning group. It was so special.”
Johnson said that exchange between the two might be their best one.
“It was awesome. Pretty cool,” Johnson said. “Emotional, too, something I will never forget because he means so much to me.”
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