Sunday, June 19, 2016

What Happens When You Surprise Yourself: A Case for Dustin Johnson

When is the last time you surprised yourself? It's a strange question, but there's something to it. Our friends and family know who we are, and hopefully, we do too! Typically, our personal interests, preferences and political, moral or religious leanings are of little to no surprise, until well—they are. And over the course of the past year, I have surprised myself in recognizing my favorite player on the PGA tour. It's a man I hope wins his first US Open: Dustin Johnson.
On paper, there is very little reason for DJ to serve as my favorite. For all intensive purposes it should be Jordan Spieth. Educated at a Jesuit High school, Spieth's dad and his mom were D1 college athletes. He uses the word "we" when he speaks of his team, his caddie was a teacher and he's as clean as he looks. DJ? well...

I remember reading more about him with complete disgust in the January 26. 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated. The article, "Dustin Johnson Has New Outlook, with Assist from Wayne Gretzky"  reported that in August 2014, Johnson failed his third test for recreational drugs—two of which were from cocaine. His P.R. team denied that he was suspended and argued apologetically that he was taking a personal leave. He took a similar hiatus two years prior.

Johnson and his now wife, Paulina Gretzky, the son of "The Great One," gave birth to their
Though I know why they did this,
I'm not sure it's ok
son, in January 2015. She has always been fond of posting provocative photos of herself in her latest bikini and it's hard to argue if someone were to do so--she shouldn't be the one. But selfies, her desire to promote her post-pregnancy body via Instagram and her appearance on the cover of Golf Digest just don't resonate with me. (NB: I have read she has taken up golf...)

I know I would have been frustrated if he had been in my classroom. In SI, he said,
“I knew how to get what I wanted,” he says. He wasn’t a great student at Dutch Fork High near Columbia, S.C., or at Coastal Carolina University. Instead, he took perverse pride in doing the minimum. “I could’ve made the time and got straight A’s,” he admits, “but I did just enough to make sure I was eligible to play golf.”
I've never appreciated those that say they could earn a 4.0 if they had only applied themselves. I am suspicious of their claims. Do they really know how hard it is to do that? And,
Along the way he has had two significant legal issues. At 16, he was involved in the burglary of a handgun that was used in a murder. (He testified at trial, paid restitution for the burglary and was pardoned.) And in 2009 he was arrested for DUI. (The charge was dismissed, but he pleaded guilty to reckless driving.) The legal issues, the suspicious breaks from the Tour, the careless play on the golf course -- after being penalized at the 2010 PGA for grounding his club in a bunker, he said he had neglected to read the local rules sheet -- make skeptics question whether he can change.
If you are watching this year's US Open at Oakmont, you know that the question of change has plagued Johnson beyond his personal life. Putting for eagle on the 18th hole, he missed it and the next one. His 3-putt on the final hole at Chambers Bay gave the 115th US Open title to Jordan Spieth. 
So what's the appeal in Dustin Johnson? Why is he my favorite player on the tour? I wish I could tell you it's an appeal to his humanity, but it's not. I don't identify to any part of his—though I am confident many others do...and that's a good thing. People I know and love have struggled with substance abuse. Though I find a DUI to be a true crime, I know people who have made that mistake—more than once. It's so scary. No, I like DJ for what he brings to golf: his sheer athleticism.

I can't look at Dustin Johnson and not see him as a wide receiver or a tight end. I wonder how many people in South Carolina wish he had played for the Gamecocks. I love the fact that he hits the ball off the tee further than anyone on the tour; his average is 309.5 yards. When I see him tee off, I recall the number of splash hits of a different kind he had  at AT&T Park when the US Open was at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. I'm sure when he threw out the first pitch later that night that the Giants pitching staff took a decent look at his stuff. We still need help in mid-relief. Pete Thamel wrote
Last fall Johnson started by getting his body right. He was carrying 220 pounds -- “not a good 220” -- on his 6' 4" frame, so he dropped 20 through daily workouts with his trainer and has since put on 13 pounds of muscle. In sessions with his life coach and clinicians, Johnson discovered that he didn’t handle stress and anxiety well. “My way of getting rid of it was drinking or partying,” he says. “Yeah, that might work for that day or the next week, but eventually everything keeps piling up.” Johnson has sought other releases, from skiing to fishing to free diving.
Only recently did I learn about free diving. #badass. I'd love to see him play basketball, but really, I'm just glad he's on the PGA tour.
For too long, the image of professional golfers was one middle aged men in plaid pants. Today's player is young, he is not only physically fit and strong but mentally resilient. I question if he is using Performance Enhancement Drugs, but I also know today's equipment allows them to hit farther than ever. 

Because golf is an individual sport, it's not unnatural to look for reasons to identify with an athlete. If we're Irish, we may be partial to those players from the Emerald Isle. Perhaps you love Bubba Watson because you too grew up outside of a country club and never had a formal lesson. Maybe you and your favorite player share an alma mater. Walking through the clubhouse at Stanford, I couldn't help but think the list of Cardinal players is impressive: Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie among them.

But as I've seen in Dustin Johnson, maybe you follow an athlete because of the reason you know about them in the first place: you like what they do in their sport and how they do it. Perhaps you surrender their personal story and stay with the professional one. I realize that's not an easy thing to do, but it must be what loyalists of Tiger Woods say. And maybe in the process of cheering for an unlikely pro athlete, you learn some unexpected things about yourself...

Other thoughts on DJ
  • Anyone can stand behind the athlete that always wins. Johnson is known for coming unbelievably close (more than once) and something goes wrong. In all honesty, that's not hard for me to relate to!
  • When I told my seniors that he is my favorite player, about 7 boys in each class looked at me and one another and gave a collective "yeah!" with appropriate head nod. 
  • Johnson's younger brother Austin is his caddie. 
  • "Never before has someone moved forward with so little effort." Quote by my friend Paul after watching DJ at the Masters. 
  • Is it just me or would Bradley Cooper play him in a golf movie?

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