Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 19, 2017

Demons Behind Him, DJ Rises To The Top

In some ways Dustin Johnson’s runaway win at the Genesis Open was no great surprise. After all DJ, as golf fans refer to him, is the defending U.S. Open champion, having won by three strokes at Oakmont last June. He also won two weeks later at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and again during the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs last September at the BMW Championship. Those three wins plus a dozen other top ten finishes were enough to garner Johnson the Tour’s 2016 Player of the Year Award. This weekend’s triumph makes him just the fourth golfer to win at least once in each of his first ten seasons on tour. The three men Johnson joins on that short list are named Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods. On top of that, the win on the hallowed grounds of Riviera Country Club means that he will rise to number one in the world when the new Official World Golf Rankings are released Monday, ending Jason Day’s forty-seven week run at the top of the rankings.

The venerable Pacific Palisades layout, with its gnarly kikuyu grass rough and poa annua greens that become uneven late in the day, is one of the sterner tests on the PGA Tour’s schedule. Although Riviera was softened by torrential rains that drenched and interrupted the tournament’s early rounds and forced most of the field to play 36 holes on Sunday, the 12-under par totals returned by Thomas Pieters and Scott Brown were decidedly worthy efforts, since that score would have won the event four of the last six years. All it did for the 25-year old Belgian and the 33-year old American this year was earn them a tie for second, five shots behind Johnson.

But then with his prodigious length off the tee DJ has been overwhelming golf courses and his fellow competitors whenever his putter gets hot since his rookie season in 2008. This week his TaylorMade mallet was on fire. In his second round 66 Johnson made birdie putts of thirty-eight, thirty-five and twenty-five feet. Sunday morning he began his third round facing a fifty-five foot putt for eagle on the par-5 1st hole. Johnson calmly rolled it to within two inches for his first birdie of the day. He holed six more birdie putts with no bogeys to pull away from the field with a 7-under par 64. After bogeying the par-3 4th hole in his opening eighteen, Johnson didn’t drop another shot until midway in his final walk around Riviera, when the outcome was no longer in doubt on Sunday afternoon.

A title at a premier track, a decade of winning, a major championship, Player of the Year and the number one ranking – in some ways these are the accomplishments that golf fans have always expected Dustin Johnson to achieve. But there has been another side to the 32-year old’s career. As he stands at the top of the golfing world this week, it is worth remembering how very close Johnson came to being a sad and cautionary tale.

Before he enjoyed the sweet taste of victory at a major championship at Oakmont last year, DJ endured repeated heartbreak at golf’s most important tournaments. He held the 54-hole lead at the 2010 U.S. Open, and went to the first tee at Pebble Beach for the final round three shots clear of playing partner Graeme McDowell. Johnson promptly made a triple-bogey on the 2nd hole and followed that with a double on the 3rd. At the end of a torturous afternoon he signed for a final round 82, while McDowell raised the trophy. That same year he appeared to have played his way into a three-man playoff at the PGA Championship, but officials assessed Johnson a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a fairway bunker on Whistling Straits’ final hole. In 2015 at the moonscape known as Chambers Bay, Johnson faced a 12-foot putt for eagle and the title on the U.S. Open’s 72nd hole. Even if he missed, a two putt birdie would have earned him a spot in a playoff with Jordan Spieth. Instead he three putted, his first two efforts never scaring the hole. Later that summer he was the midway leader in the Open Championship at St. Andrews, before disappearing with a pair of 75s on the weekend.

Johnson finally vanquished his major championship demons last June; but before he could do so he had to extricate himself from some personal devils as well. He missed two months of the 2012 season for what was publicly described as a back injury. But the whispers in the golf media at the time suggested that he had been suspended by the PGA Tour for a second failed drug test. Then on July 31, 2014, Johnson announced that he was taking an extended break to deal with “personal challenges.” Golf Magazine reported that he had been suspended for six months after testing positive for cocaine, following another such result in 2012 and a 2009 positive test for marijuana. The PGA Tour is notoriously tight-lipped about its disciplinary actions. A Tour statement at the time denied that Johnson had been suspended, though it said nothing about the alleged positive tests nor whether his voluntary leave had eliminated the need for a formal suspension. His own statement made it plain that whatever Johnson was dealing with, it wasn’t something to be disguised as a back injury.

His would not have been the first athletic career to be waylaid by drugs, had it come to that. But this is one tale that has a happier ending. When he returned to the Tour in early 2015 Johnson had fallen out of the top twenty in the world. Now he’s number one, with five victories since he resumed playing. Since 2013 he’s been engaged to the model Paulina Gretzky, daughter of the hockey legend. When he won the U.S. Open she greeted DJ holding their son Tatum, then 17 months old. This week the couple announced they are expecting their second child.

Some careers are overtaken by doubts at key moments, or by bad decisions away from the field of play. Some, but not all. As Dustin Johnson has shown, athletes can overcome their doubts and triumph; and human beings, as fallible as we are, can make the most of second chances.


  1. DJ replaces JD. Somehow it seems fitting. Good post, mike.

    • Thanks Allan. I did notice that little bit of synchronicity myself.

      All the best,

      Michael Cornelius

  2. Excellent piece. Really “The Great One”. Chuck

    • Thanks very much Chuck. I really appreciate your kind words.


      Michael Cornelius

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: