Dustin Johnson opens up to CNN's Living Golf
The American world No. 1 is favorite for US Open
He had pocketed millions of dollars in prize money and collected a haul of trophies, but Dustin Johnson was “fed up with being good.”
Not to the point where he wanted to give up the game, but frustrated by only being “good.” He wanted to be great.
The tall, athletic American was one of the biggest hitters golf had ever seen with a talent to match.
But he was golf’s nearly man.
He had let slip a succession of chances to win majors, both through misfortune and misadventure.
But after controversy, a personal crisis and fatherhood, something changed within Johnson.
His breakthrough major title at the 2016 US Open paved the way for a streak which has yielded five more wins, including three this season, and catapulted him to world No. 1.
“I can have someone tell me to do stuff all the time every day and if I don’t want to do it, I ain’t gonna do it,” the 32-year-old, favorite for the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills, told CNN’s Living Golf.
“It’s got to come from me. Obviously people give me advice and what I should do, but I’m only going to do what I think I want to do. So, it was just time.
“I was just fed up with, you know, being good. I thought I could be a lot better.”
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Johnson’s big misses included squandering a three-shot lead going into the final round of the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach.
And the time he earned a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a poorly defined bunker on the final hole of the 2010 US PGA at Whistling Straits, falling out of a playoff.
He also three-putted on the final green to lose by one to Jordan Spieth in the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay.
Each time he met adversity with equanimity, seemingly able to accept his fate and move on quickly.
But despite Johnson’s prodigious talent, there were off-course issues.
In July 2014 it was announced he was taking a “leave of absence” from the PGA Tour to confront “personal problems.”
Reports suggested he had failed three drugs tests, including two for cocaine. The PGA Tour does not disclose punishments metered out to players, but in a later interview with Sports Illustrated Johnson denied drugs were the issue, although he admitted drinking too much vodka.
At the same time his fiancee Paulina Gretzky, daughter of ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Son Tatum was born shortly before Johnson returned to the Tour in February 2015.
With the responsibility of fatherhood, the guidance of the Gretzky family, and the help of his coach Butch Harmon and other members of his tightened team, Johnson knuckled down.
He worked hard on his wedge play, rededicated himself to the gym, and made a fast start on his return, with a ninth PGA Tour victory the following month before finishing tied fourth at the Masters that April.
And the near miss at Chambers Bay in June was met with typical level-headedness.
“I hit the shots I needed to hit under pressure so I knew I had what it takes,” he told CNN.
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But even Johnson’s maiden major was not without controversy.
At Oakmont 12 months ago, Johnson was judged to have caused his ball to move by a fraction of an inch on the fifth green in the final round.
A rules official absolved him of blame, but seven holes later he was informed there may be a penalty coming after all. He played the remaining holes unsure of his score, but kept his head to win by four.
The penalty was assessed after the round, cutting the margin to three, but fortunately for Johnson – and golf’s reputation – he was home and dry.
“Obviously, it was a huge relief and a big accomplishment for me personally, but especially with what had happened the year before,” he told CNN.
“It was a huge win for my confidence and since then I’ve stepped my game up to a whole different level. That was the springboard, it kind of affirmated [sic] that the things I was doing were working.”
Johnson was favorite to double his major tally going into this year’s Masters with three straight wins to his name.
Two of those came in prestigious World Golf Championship events, taking his total to five – only Tiger Woods has won more.
But on the eve of the Masters in April, Johnson injured his back slipping down some stairs in his rental home in Augusta. Despite intensive physio he was forced to pull out of the tournament before his first round.
Johnson, in trademark fashion, shrugged off the disappointment.
Of his ability to stay on an even keel he told CNN: “I’ve been through every tough situation you could possibly imagine to come up on a golf course so as far as handling situations, I’ve done it all. I’m pretty good at handling situations.”
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However, despite the laid back demeanor Johnson insists he is “very, very competitive” with “huge drive.”
“Unless you know me there’s definitely a lot more than meets the eye,” he adds.
Johnson will line up again as favorite for this year’s US Open at Erin Hills, Wisconsin from June 15-18.
“To me every tournament is big and I want to win them all,” he said.
“I enjoy being there on Sundays in the hunt, trying to win golf tournaments. That’s why I work so hard in the gym, why I work so hard on my game.
“Having Paulina and Tatum there is a huge bonus and that’s why I like to do this.”