If the sideburns and soul patch of an earlier era don’t give it away, then the white alligator belt from an upscale fashion designer probably does. Dustin Johnson, 27, is young, cool, fun-loving and single and doesn’t really care who knows about it. Especially when it brings a few more fans to the game.
“I think kids these days are starting to realize that golf is a cool sport — and you’ve got more athletic guys playing the game. I like to have fun as much as possible. I don’t mind people thinking I’m single and fun-loving; that’s OK with me,” he says.
Born in Columbia, S.C., and currently living in Jupiter, Fla., Johnson has claimed four PGA Tour titles, and, last season, he hired one of the tour’s legendary caddies to help him guide his career. Recently, though, a CBS golf commentator said Johnson looked as if he were sleepwalking on the course and called on him to wake up and reclaim his immense talents and ability. Last year, Johnson infamously lost both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, despite taking leads in both final rounds. During the latter event, Johnson missed out on a playoff when he grounded his club in an 18th-hole bunker; he later admitted that he hadn’t read a rule sheet given to all players before the tournament that outlined the many bunkers on the course.
“During the days you struggle, it’s not as fun. You might try to look like you’re having fun, but you’re not, and those might be the days [someone] thinks, ‘He’s sleepwalking,’ he says.
At 16, Johnson was literally scared straight onto the path that ultimately led him to professional golf. One evening he was in a car with four other friends when the older brother of one of the friends committed a break-in during which a gun was stolen. Later, the older brother coerced Johnson to buy ammo for the gun because he had a fake ID. A month later, the brother killed a man with the same gun. Because Johnson claimed to have been coerced into the incident and he testified against the older brother of his friend, Johnson was able to avoid jail or a criminal record. A high school golfer at the time, he quickly saw how his future career could go from cool to ruined in a split second.
“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he remembers. “You learn from your past. Everyone makes mistakes, and as long as you learn from them and move on, I think that’s all you can do.”
Watson was born in the tiny Florida Panhandle town of Bagdad, with the legal name of Gerry Watson. But since his father, a Special Forces captain, was also named Gerry, he’s gone by Bubba most of his 32 years. The self-described biggest kid on the PGA Tour, Watson lists his hobbies as playing video games, wake surfing, driving fast cars and making funny YouTube videos with his friends. He’s worked hard to have a good time with life, and he feels he has succeeded.
Growing up, Watson says he got a quick lesson on priorities from his dad. “[He] said we didn’t have a lot of money for golf or other things, so I was either going to have to be good in school or be good at a sport. I could tell school wasn’t for me, [but] I could play a sport. I didn’t have a lot of toys growing up, because I could always make the balls go different ways. That was my sport. We had a big yard at home, and I was there all day long with some kind of club and ball.”
Entirely self-taught, Watson distances himself from the standard golfers lineup of teaching aids, swing gurus and mental coaches. He attended an Alabama community college before moving on to the University of Georgia to play golf. While in school there, he met his wife, Angie, who played basketball at Georgia and later in Europe. Watson left before graduating, though, to pursue professional golf. He eventually returned without telling friends or family and earned a degree in consumer economics so that he could validate his push for local kids to stay in school.
The king of Twitter and whatever the latest and greatest video games of the moment are (Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat, currently), Watson approaches life on and off the course with a fun-loving attitude. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take his role as a leader in the golf community seriously. Rather, he does just the opposite. “We’re trying to grow a great game and raise money for [local PGA Tour] charity,” he says — which is one of the main reasons he doesn’t worry about what others might say or think; he has more important things to do. Of course, his playful side has been on constant display since 2004, when he put a pink shaft in his longest club, the 44.5-inch driver that he swings as one of the few left-handers on the Tour.
“I like bright colors, I like to have fun — and it seemed like fun to me, so why not?” he asks with a laugh.
Why not, indeed. From sideburns to sunglasses, pink shafts to power clothes, golf’s next pro-tour wave is intent on living life out loud and laughing all the way to the bank.