Dustin Johnson: Drugs, affairs, and the silence that shames golf
Article from November 2014
Heard the one about the top-10 golfer who failed three drug tests in five years, including two for cocaine, while allegedly carrying on liaisons with the wife of at least one fellow tour player?
If not, then those PGA Tour mandarins in Florida would prefer to keep it that way. For the name of Dustin Johnson is one that they have, for three months, been seeking desperately to expunge. Johnson has become to his sport what his namesake Ben has been to athletics ever since 1988: a pariah, a persona non grata, a great unmentionable.
Phil Mickelson, a man not normally shy of an opinion or two to judge by his Ryder Cup showing, describes Johnson’s exile since August as “kind of a touchy issue – I’d rather just stay away”.
Even the ever-garrulous Graeme McDowell admits that it is “tough to know what’s going down”. On all things Dustin, golf is scrupulously cultivating the same code of silence with which it once helped to cover up Tiger Woods’ industrial-scale philandering. Johnson was supposed to be defending his title at last week’s World Golf Championship in Shanghai and yet there was, in his absence, barely a word about him to be found.
Which is all very mysterious, because the 30 year-old’s downfall is the story that has everything. It has the daughter of an ice hockey legend, in the form of Paulina Gretsky, Johnson’s fiancée and soon-to-be mother of their first child. It has tales of hard drug use, which have prompted Johnson to take – in the tour’s euphemistic language – a “leave of absence” to resolve his “personal problems”. And it has rumoured dalliances with two women married to his colleagues on the road, just to prove that he has learnt precisely nothing from the experience of his close friend Tiger.
Yet another layer to the intrigue emerged earlier this month, when Johnson’s lawyers sued one of his former advisors on 17 counts – including possible racketeering and wire fraud – in a row over a £2 million unpaid loan. If he ever decides to write a book entitled, ‘What I Did in 2014’, it would be an instant New York Times bestseller. Then again, Johnson is not exactly regarded as golf’s foremost man of letters. Many of his detractors have long agreed that this lanky son of South Carolina has a bag of cement for a brain, as reflected in Rick Reilly’s famous remark that “Dustin is so dense, light bends around him”.
By all accounts, it is Wayne Gretsky himself who has ordered Johnson to shape up or ship out if he has any hope of hanging on to his daughter. In Wayne’s world it is, to adapt an old Robert De Niro saying, “my way or the Central Florida Expressway”. For all the young man’s world-class idiocy, though, it is tempting to wonder whether the chief outrage is not the misdemeanours themselves but the extent to which golf has gone to try to sweep them into the long grass.
Firstly, the alleged womanising: Robert Lusetich, the respected Fox analyst and author of a book about Woods’ fall from grace, wrote after the story broke that it was “not a huge secret that Johnson had affairs with two wives of PGA Tour players – one broke up the marriage”. Secondly, and more seriously, the drug-taking: Johnson had tested positive three times since 2009, twice for cocaine and once for marijuana, and yet it was not until the real reasons were blown off his withdrawal this summer from all competition that the tour decided to divulge any of it.
We can debate the merits or otherwise of being as high as a kite while standing over a slippery four-foot putt, but this is not really the point. The disgrace is that the tour knew full well what Johnson had done, but resolved to tell the world nothing beyond a clumsy, ambiguous statement that he was taking some time away to sort his life out. This is entirely in keeping with their secret-society mentality elsewhere. In China last week, the PGA Tour made clear their disapproval of Patrick Reed for calling himself a “f------ faggot” on live television after a careless three-putt, but refused to say even if they would fine him.
Golf remains unforgivably opaque on matters of discipline. When the European Tour fined Woods for spitting on a Dubai green and when the PGA Tour sanctioned him last year for criticising a match referee, there was no attempt on either occasion to specify the level of punishment. Penalties are kept in-house and Johnson’s drug transgressions are thus treated with nothing like the seriousness they deserve. If you needed yet another reason why golf should not be in the Olympics – and Darren Clarke was adamant this week that he would not be in Rio, arguing the Games should “represent the pinnacle of amateur, not professional sport” – it is that it displays little commitment to honouring the drug protocols required.
Yes, there is far more random testing, but the Johnson case proves that there is also an unseemly scramble to conceal the evidence whenever a drug test comes back positive. If the tour will not even bother to explain his offence, then where is the harm to his reputation? Johnson is simply the sinner they would rather you did not know about.
It is worth recalling this when he makes his scheduled return next February at the Pebble Beach pro-am alongside Mr Gretsky, in some horribly hokey effort at playing the scolded son-in-law. Johnson has brought golf into disrepute, and ought to pay his penance. In this episode there should be no easy absolution either for him or for the game itself. Golf had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the drug-testing table but has continued, even as a controversial member of the Olympic family, to pay mere lip service to the essential spirit of transparency. Dare to ask them about Johnson and you would get a straighter answer out of the Knights Templar.