Every junior golfer in South Carolina has probably done it at least once in their lives.
From the Upstate to the Lowcountry, from the Midlands to the Grand Strand, the young player stands over a putt and whispers, “This is to win the Masters.”
With the state’s proximity to Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, it’s no surprise. The year’s first major is drilled into the subconscious of those who take up the game and, in the pre-pandemic world, many South Carolinians regularly got to visit the famous course and see the world’s top players.
Dustin Johnson was one of those kids who dreamed of slipping on a green jacket one day. It didn’t hurt that his first trip to the Masters came in 1997, the same year Tiger Woods obliterated scoring records. It left quite an impression on the 12-year-old Johnson.
Little did he know that he would indeed grow up to play in the Masters and one day wear the green jacket. It certainly gave him a goal to achieve.
Some kids grow up wanting to hit the home run that wins the World Series or score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Not Johnson. For him, it was always about the Masters.
“For sure. Always around the putting green growing up, it was putts to win the Masters or hitting chip shots,” he said. “It was always to win Augusta. Especially because I grew up so close to (Augusta), about an hour and ten minutes away.”
Johnson realized his dream in November 2020, winning the Masters in record fashion.
“Yeah, growing up, that was all it was,” he said. “As a kid, you dream of playing in the Masters, and dream about putting on a green jacket. Still kind of think it’s a dream, but hopefully, it’s not.”
'Great farm system'
Long before Johnson joined the PGA Tour and became a regular contender in golf’s major championships, he was that kid.
You know, the one who gets to the local golf course bright and early on a summer day and spends all day on the course and on the driving range. His father was the pro at Mid-Carolina Club, and golf was a natural fit.
Jimmy Koosa operated Weed Hill, a driving range in Irmo that was frequented by Johnson, his younger brother Austin and the rest of his pals.
“There were 10 or 11 of them always, like a little gang, and they were always on the driving range or course,” said Chris Miller, who ran the South Carolina Junior Golf Association and briefly coached Johnson in high school. “That’s the way we wanted it. It was a second home to those kids. Jimmy never charged those kids a dime.”
For a small state with a population around 5 million, South Carolina has produced more than its share of talented golfers.
The S.C. Golf Association runs a heralded junior program, and at last count it had more than 50 professional victories from former players.
Clemson coach Larry Penley didn’t recruit Johnson, whose grandfather Art Whisnant was a star basketball player at USC. But he respected Johnson’s talent, along with the likes of the state’s other PGA Tour winners.
“We’ve got the South Carolina Junior Golf Association to thank for that,” Penley said. “What a great farm system they are for professionals.”
You won’t find Johnson’s name on the list of state amateur winners or some of the golf association’s more prestigious trophies.
That doesn’t mean Johnson wasn’t a solid player. He wound up at Coastal Carolina under the guidance of coach Allen Terrell, and that match was what Johnson needed.
“He just knew he wanted to play professionally. He didn’t have anything schoolwise, and he was working at a car dealership,” Miller said. “But he knew he wanted to play.”
Terrell consulted with Miller before bringing Johnson to Conway.
“I told him there was probably no one in the state who could play with him,” Miller said. “I think that was the biggest help for Dustin, just getting him on a course of action on proper play and practice. You see that even to this day. He’s still with Allen. You can sense the reverence.”
At Coastal Carolina, all Johnson did was earn All-America honors three times and win Big South Conference Player of the Year three times.
Terrell is still part of Johnson’s inner circle, and the golfer is quick to credit the coach for his success.
“It’s a pretty neat bond that they’ve got,” Miller said. “I think Allen helped him get there a lot quicker and built that confidence a lot faster.”
Kevin Kisner has plenty of stories about Johnson. The Aiken pro is a few months older than Johnson and grew up playing against him in high school and junior tournaments.
“We used to pick him up at his house and take him to tournaments for as long as I can remember,” Kisner said. “My parents would carry him on and put him in a hotel with me.”
Johnson was a long hitter, and Kisner had a smooth putting stroke. When they teamed up, they were a formidable duo.
“We used to be four-ball partners where he would make six birdies and four double (bogeys) and I would make all the pars and we would win all the tournaments,” Kisner said with a laugh.
At a junior tournament in Hartsville, Kisner and Johnson battled it out.
“The most famous story is when I skulled one out of the woods and ran over the hill and hit the flag and went in, and he three-putted to lose by one and his granddad yelled (an expletive),” Kisner said. “He was beating me all week, and I came back and beat him on the last hole.”
Then there’s the time Kisner got the best of Johnson in a playoff to win the Joe Wyatt Invitational at Houndslake Country Club.
“That might be my last playoff win,” said Kisner, who has lost five playoffs in his PGA Tour career.
“I vaguely remember having to go to that playoff. I remember it because it was prom night. I was thinking if I don’t hurry up and get this over with I’m going to miss prom.”
Kisner recognized early on that Johnson was a special talent.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen for my entire life,” he said. “Once he became the ultimate professional that I think he is now, you can see how much his talent is prevailing.”
Only two players under the age of 50 have at least 24 PGA Tour victories. One is Tiger Woods. The other? Johnson.
“He puts the work in,” Kisner said. “That’s what people don’t understand. He’s out there grinding as hard as the guy trying to keep his card. I think that’s what people take for granted.
“He changed his ball flight, and every time I see him he’s working on his wedge game. He understands what he has to do to play well.”
The golf world had long predicted success for Johnson at Augusta National. With his length off the tee, it seemed to be a perfect match.
But Johnson struggled in his first few trips around Augusta National. Maybe the kid who dreamed of winning the Masters wanted it too much?
He didn’t post a top-10 finish in Augusta until the 2015 Masters, and he backed that up with a tie for fourth the next year. In 2017, with all signs pointing toward Johnson as the man to beat, he had to withdraw because of an injury he suffered at his rental home.
He tied for second in 2019, the year Tiger Woods turned back the clock and won his fifth green jacket. That just made Johnson even hungrier to win in Augusta.
“Well, just growing up so close to here, it’s always been a tournament that since I’ve been on tour, since I played my first Masters, it’s been the tournament I wanted to win the most,” Johnson said. “You know, being close the last couple years, finishing second last year to Tiger, this one was just something that I really wanted to do.”
With the world turned upside down in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, there was no guarantee that the Masters would even be played.
The sports world started shutting down in March, and Augusta National and Masters Chairman Fred Ridley announced soon after that the rite of spring would not occur as scheduled.
The PGA Tour resumed play in June, and the Masters was rescheduled for November.
Johnson won in his third event after the restart, the Travelers Championship, but then missed the cut with a pair of 80s a month later at the Memorial Tournament. The next week, he withdrew after opening with 78 at the 3M Open.
Something wasn’t right. He bounced back to finish tied for 12th the next week in Memphis, then embarked on one of the most remarkable runs of golf in recent memory.
Johnson dominated the FedEx Cup playoff series, winning two of the three tournaments and finishing second in the one he didn’t win.
He finished tied for sixth at the rescheduled U.S. Open, then took a few weeks off. The week before Augusta, he tied for second in Houston.
Suddenly, everything was clicking.
Of the many records that Johnson set in winning the November Masters, several stand out. But the one for fewest bogeys – four – is impressive. And consider that two of those four bogeys occurred early in the final round.
Johnson took a big lead into the final round, but bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5 whittled his lead to one over Sungjae Im.
His misfortunes in the majors have been well documented. Miller even remembers when Johnson hit his tee shot while the announcer was introducing him at the Walker Cup. That’s how nervous he was.
But this time the pressure was no problem for Johnson. He stuffed an 8-iron on the par-3 sixth to 6 feet and drained the birdie putt.
“That kind of obviously helped the nerves a little bit,” Johnson said. “From there on out, I felt like I played really solid.”
Order was restored, and the only question remaining would be if Johnson could eclipse the tournament scoring record shared by Woods and Jordan Spieth at 18-under-par for 72 holes.
Johnson picked up birdies at Nos. 8 and 13 to reach 18-under for the tournament. Birdies on Nos. 14 and 15 put him at 20 under, and he calmly parred the final three holes to establish the all-time scoring mark.
A few hundred people gathered around the 18th green – remember, there were no regular patrons because of the pandemic – as Johnson and caddie-brother Austin made that uphill walk.
Johnson is famously stoic, a man of few outward emotions. But this time was different. His fiancee Paulina Gretzky was lurking, ready to congratulate him.
‘Hard to talk'
After slipping into his 42 long green jacket in the Butler Cabin ceremony, Johnson made his way to the practice putting green where Amanda Balionis of CBS interviewed the newest member of the Masters Club.
“It’s a dream come true,” Johnson said.
This time, he couldn’t hide his emotions. He had to pause to gather himself and wipe the tears from his eyes.
“It’s hard to talk,” he said. “I’ve never had this much trouble gathering myself. On the golf course I’m pretty good at it. Out here, I’m not.”
He let out a couple of more sighs, then resumed the interview.
“When he played in it the first time it was a huge deal,” Miller, his former coach, said. “But I think that one finally got him. He holds that up there higher than any of the tournaments. It signified a great deal of accomplishment for the work that he put in.”
The ups and downs of a lifetime of chasing his Masters dream are now behind him. The little boy who beat balls from sunup to sundown is now part of one of golf’s most exclusive fraternities.
He’ll have a seat at the Champions Dinner for the rest of his life. And he’ll forever be known as a Masters champion.
“As a kid, I always dreamed about being a Masters champion,” Johnson said. “It’s just incredible.”