Saturday 29 April 2017

How Johnson went from game's pariah to world No 1

Dustin Johnson celebrates his victory following the final round of the Genesis Open golf tournament at Riviera Country Club. Photo: Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports
Dustin Johnson celebrates his victory following the final round of the Genesis Open golf tournament at Riviera Country Club. Photo: Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

James Corrigan

From teenage tearaway implicated in a gangland murder to multi-millionaire athlete. From party animal with three positive tests for recreational drugs to Major champion. From game's pariah wasting all that god-given ability to world No 1 for whom rivals have nothing but praise.

"Yeah, it's been a long journey," said Dustin Johnson.

Indeed it has, making diversions into areas unvisited by any of his 19 predecessors on top of the rankings. But when the 32-year-old American tapped in for a facile success in the Genesis Open in Los Angeles on Sunday there was an overwhelming feeling that the destination had been reached.

Ominously for Rory McIlroy and Co, Johnson has the power to stick around, according to Butch Harmon.

The New Yorker, who has overseen Johnson's swing since 2009, helped Tiger Woods to a 683-week reign in the rankings. Harmon knows a golfing tyrant when he coaches one. "Dustin is the one player out there that I believe will be able to hold No 1 for a long time," Harmon said. "He has so much confidence in all parts of his game and also he is happy with his life."

The last point is critical, because the talent never was in doubt, not even when, after the acrimonious divorce of his parents, he became mixed up with the wrong crowd in his South Carolina hometown of Columbia. By the time he was 16, the main golfing universities were chasing the signature of this son of a club pro. Alas, it was not only the professors who were persuasive.

A friend's brother convinced him to purchase bullets for a stolen gun that was used in a fatal shooting and although Johnson was spared jail, it was the wake-up call he required.

Johnson duly starred in the collegiate ranks, was a member of the 2007-winning Walker Cup team and wasted little time in visiting the professional winner's circle, with his PGA Tour victory at Pebble Beach, less than six months later. However, infamy kept on poking its head into the progression, with rumours of his hell-raising lifestyle being raised as quickly as the titles. And when the Major heartbreaks began, he was depicted as a brittle spirit.

At the 2010 US PGA, he led down the last, only to ground his club in a bunker which he did not know was a bunker and a year later he confirmed Darren Clarke's fairytale triumph at the Open with a shank out of bounds.

The word was he found refuge in the high life and in 2014 he announced he was taking a six-month "voluntary absence", after twice testing positive for cocaine and once for cannabis. Johnson admitted to seeking professional help for "personal struggles" and was guided back to the tee by his fiancee's father, Wayne Gretzky, the ice hockey legend.

Harmon also hails the influence of another male. Tatum Gretzky Johnson was born to Dustin and Paulina in 2015. Minus the setback at the 2015 US Open -where he three-putted from 12 feet to hand Jordan Spieth the glory - the rise has been uninterrupted since.

"Dustin becoming a father gave him that big responsibility that he'd never had before," Harmon said.

Johnson is being characteristically laid-back about his rise.

"No I wouldn't have said I was the best in the world," he said on Sunday. "But I guess I can say it now." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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