We catch up with 2020 Masters winner Dustin Johnson who looks back on his record-breaking week at Augusta National
Dustin Johnson Exclusive: ‘Motivation Isn’t Hard For Me. I Like Being The Best’
How does one Dustin Johnson celebrate the lifelong dream and fulfilled expectation of becoming a Masters Champion?
By jetting off to the sun-splashed Caribbean, of course, and the island hamlet of Saint Barthelemy, known for white-sand beaches and haute couture shops and which borrows from French poet Charles Baudelaire’s Invitation to the Voyage in describing itself thusly: “There, everything is order and beauty, luxury, calm and voluptuousness.”
These days, the same could be said of Johnson’s life, on the course and off it.
Truth be told, the holiday was already planned a month prior to his record-setting victory at Augusta National in November.
The shots just went down a little easier and tasted a little sweeter.
So, too, did dinner at swanky but casual-chic Le Tamarin, where verdant gardens provided the backdrop for Johnson, fiancee Paulina Gretzky, his caddie/brother Austin and his wife Sam Maddox, along with a handful of friends, to enjoy some 1959 Chateau Cheval Blanc, which goes for around $2,000 a bottle.
Johnson was a long way from his humble beginnings at Weed Hill Driving Range in Columbia, South Carolina, but the easy vibe was befitting a low-key superstar of such immense talent.
“It worked out that it was more of a celebration,” Johnson tells Golf Monthly.
“But we were going there either way.”
Past Major missteps aside, it only seemed a matter of time before Johnson would be driving down Magnolia Lane with a Green Jacket in tow.
This time, he made it look easy.
With a final-round 68 to finish the week at 20-under, Johnson broke by two strokes the tournament scoring record set by Tiger Woods in 1997 and matched by Jordan Spieth in 2015.
His five-shot victory was also the largest in the tournament since Woods won by a dozen in ’97.
A replay of the tournament sits in Johnson’s email, but early in the new year he was still yet to get to it, not with two young sons, Tatum, aged six, and River, aged three, and a fiancee to tend to, not to mention the duties of and efforts to remain the No.1 player in the world.
Besides, he remembers it quite well.
“I drove it really well, which was a big key for me winning, especially around there,” says Johnson, who hit nearly 80% of the fairways for the week, finding not just the short grass but the right spots in the short grass to provide the angles necessary to make 20 birdies, two eagles and just four bogeys – the fewest ever by a Masters Champion.
“Only making four bogeys during the week really stands out. I hit my irons very solid, in the right spots and the right distances. I didn’t play really aggressive, but I tried to play very smart and be very patient.”
Smart is not a word that gets used often when describing Johnson’s myriad abilities, but that would be doing the 36-year-old a disservice, at least when it comes to matters inside the ropes.
Take, for example, the par-5 13th at Augusta National in Sunday’s final round.
Leading by three and with his ball resting in the fairway just 230 yards from the flag, Johnson decided to lay up. Not just that, he played a low-flighted runner.
Why? So the mud on his ball would get knocked off as the ball rolled through the wet turf.
He went on to make birdie to extend the lead to four. There were other, more obvious, standouts from the week that stick in his brain, too.
Going into Saturday, Johnson found himself locked in a five-way tie for the lead.
Then he hit a 5-iron to two feet on the par-5 2nd hole to set up an eagle.
He birdied each of the next two holes and went on to shoot 65 to build a four-shot lead going into the final round.
Banishing the demons
Still, there were moments, because there almost always are in the cauldron of Major Championship golf.
Especially for Johnson, who has endured a lifetime’s worth on golf’s biggest stages – from Pebble Beach (2010 US Open) and Whistling Straits (2010 PGA Championship) to Royal St George’s (2011 Open Championship) and Chambers Bay (2015 US Open).
Not this time.
After bogeys on 4 and 5 to see his lead shrink to a single stroke, Johnson bounced back with a spectacular birdie on 6 and another on 8.
On the 10th, with a chunk of mud again attached to his ball, he aimed well right with his second and watched as the ball curved back towards the flag, stopping 20 feet away and pin high.
“That was one of the bigger shots of the day,” Johnson says.
“That stretch of 10, 11 and 12 [par, par, birdie] was one of the keys to my round. And mud was getting on the ball all week, not just Sunday. I did a really good job judging what the ball was going to do and trusting it.”
Controlling his emotions, however, turned out to be an altogether more difficult task, and one he did not succeed at.
If there’s an indelible image of Johnson’s runaway victory at The Masters, it’s of him standing in the Green Jacket wiping away a tear during his post-round interview.
“That was the most emotion I’ve ever had on a golf course,” he says.
“It wasn’t just that it surprised me, because winning there meant so much to me, but it was also surprising that I couldn’t control it. Paulina was there, too, so that probably didn’t help, either. I was overwhelmed with joy and emotion.”
A bumpy road
And why not? Johnson grew up an hour’s drive from Augusta.
Irmo (population 11,000) is just across the border of South Carolina, albeit a world away from the gilded existence inside the gates of the world’s most exclusive golf club.
Growing up so close to there, The Masters is something I always watched as a kid and when I was on the putting green it was always a putt to win The Masters,” Johnson recalls.
“It was something I always dreamed of winning.”
And it was a dream that could have ended before it ever got started.
Though a tremendous and athletic talent from an early age, Johnson had his share of brushes along the way.
Most notable among them was that in 2001 he was one of five teens caught up in a burglary in which somebody took a gun.
According to court documents, Johnson was persuaded to buy bullets for the gun by a friend’s menacing older brother.
Later that month, the brother was charged with murder after shooting the victim multiple times in the head.
Because of Johnson’s connection to the crime, he had to pay restitution for the theft and agree to testify at the murder trial.
Even once he reached the bright lights and good life of big-time professional golf, Johnson had his miscues.
In 2009, just over a month after winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for his second career title, he was arrested in South Carolina for driving under the influence.
Then in 2014, it was reported by Golf magazine that he had been allegedly suspended for six months after testing positive for cocaine in 2012.
According to the story, Johnson had failed three drug tests – two for cocaine in 2012 and 2014 and one for marijuana in 2009.
Johnson took a six-month leave of absence in 2014 for “personal challenges” but later denied he had ever failed a drug test and attributed his problems to alcohol.
Other less serious matters also took some navigating, if not resilience.
In 2017, Johnson was on a hot streak with victories in three straight starts, making him the favourite entering that year’s Masters.
But on the eve of the tournament, he slipped on a set of wooden stairs, landed on his back and was knocked out of the event, unable to tee it up the following day. Rumours naturally swirled.
Johnson said he’d rushed down the stairs in socks to retrieve his son from the car when his foot slipped.
He didn’t play again for a month.
And at the 2018 Ryder Cup, there was another stir over a supposed scuffle between him and teammate Brooks Koepka.
Meanwhile, questions on the course persisted as well, mostly around Johnson’s inability to close in Majors.
That changed in 2016 when he won the US Open at Oakmont – where he survived another infamous moment, this time by the USGA and its bungling of a one-stroke penalty – for his first Major title.
Many expected the proverbial floodgates to open, but when that didn’t happen, the question marks returned, particularly as other young stars like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, the man who beat him in the US Open at Chambers Bay, surpassed him.
Johnson, meanwhile, kept meandering onward and upward and along the way has managed to win at least one title in every year of his career – a remarkable feat.
“I don’t know if the questions bothered me – yeah, maybe a little bit,” he says.
“I’d try not to think about it, but I did think about it sometimes, whether it was a bounce or a penalty. I could have five or six Majors already.
“But it’s hard to get it done in a Major.
“Even in the last few that I had chances to win, I didn’t play poorly. It wasn’t that I made poor decisions or did anything wrong I could be upset about.
“I felt like I did the things I’m supposed to do. But it’s golf. Weird things happen. They’re always going to.”
That included at last year’s Masters, where a poor drive on the 5th hole in the final round resulted in a second straight bogey.
If Johnson was bothered by the outcome, it didn’t show, or last long. The birdie on the next hole, he said, was a turning point.
“It really got me focused on what I needed to do the rest of the day,” he says.
“From then on I didn’t look at a leaderboard and tried to shoot the lowest score I could, while also staying within myself and feeling comfortable with what I was doing.”
Plenty more to come
Comfortable is something Johnson does well, whether it’s lounging in the Caribbean or slipping his arms into the 42-long Green Jacket, which he says he has mostly kept hanging in a closet at home, save for letting a few people in his small but close circle of friends try it on.
Not that Johnson plans on resting on his laurels. Quite the contrary, actually.
“Motivation for me, it’s not that hard,” he says.
“I like being the best. No matter what tournament I’m playing, I prepare the same way and try to have the same level of focus.
“Majors feel different and have a different vibe, but I try to prepare the same. But all tournaments mean something.
“I feel like the more I play, the more I grow as a person and as a golfer, the better I’m getting. So I still feel great. I feel young. I feel like I’m in my 20s, even though I’m not.”
And now, after winning another Major and doing so at The Masters, he was able to respond to not just his critics but his competitors, including Phil Mickelson.
In 2016, Johnson, Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau were playing a practice round early in the week at Augusta.
DeChambeau and Mickelson were discussing the physics of putting: “[Bryson] was using some pretty scientific terms and Dustin kind of shook his head and he said, ‘If I hang around you guys much longer, I’ll never break 100,’” Mickelson said back then.
Talking about the annual Champions Dinner at The Masters, Mickelson wasted no time taking another friendly jab at Johnson.
“We were walking down 1, and I just said, ‘So, what are your plans tonight?’” Mickelson said. “Might have been a little too subtle for Dustin.”
Johnson eventually figured it out and couldn’t help but laugh.
“Phil was trying to get in my head a little – which didn’t work by the way,” he says.
“But yeah, at first I didn’t even get the question.”
After Johnson won The Masters, Mickelson had another line, this time in the form of a congratulatory text he sent that afternoon.
It was a nice text, Johnson says. This time he had a worthy response.
“I texted back and told Phil that I know what I’m doing Tuesday of Augusta next year.”