It’s been 80 days since Dustin Johnson played his last competitive round of golf — that was on Sunday, March 12, at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, where he placed a meh T35. That sounds like a long time even though it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
DJ was sidelined for the second time of the season — he missed a few tournaments in the beginning of the year due to knee surgery last November — when he suffered a back injury while trying to help a friend move a jetski just before the Masters, forcing him to withdraw (though he also missed Bay Hill two weeks previous, which is on his usual schedule). Nearly three months later at the Memorial Tournament, he felt admittedly “out of the routine,” causing him even to forget to unpack “some stuff, mainly belts.
“Well, I really couldn’t do anything for, I don’t know, five weeks,” said DJ, referring to this latest recovery process. “I really didn’t touch a club for five, six weeks. It was kind of ‑‑ it was pretty tough. I wasn’t hitting it very good. I was hitting it okay. I’d go in spurts. I think the first time I played, I was like 6‑ or 7‑under through eight holes and then I was even through like 12 holes. It was driver, just not driving the ball very much, because that was probably the last thing I got to work on really was the driver, so that was probably the thing that was the most sporadic.”
There’s nothing more frustrating for an athlete than being benched. The carefree, athletic 26-year-old golfer has sat out for more of the 2012 season than he had foreseen. It’s been a weird kind of year, where it’s been see-sawing between rehabbing and recovering.
“I mean, more or less you’ve just got to be kind of careful of stuff you’re doing and just kind of pay attention to what you’re doing, especially as I’m getting older,” said Dustin, laughing, when asked what he had learned from the injuries. “I need to pay a little more attention about activities that I’m doing.”
The types of activities Dustin partakes in came into question, so to speak, during his absence. There were mumblings that DJ wasn’t injured and instead was serving a drug suspension and possibly in rehab (not the outpatient kind, per se). It’s not the first time we’ve heard of DJ and related chatter, so maybe that’s what started the rumor and probably perpetuated it, but who knows, and to be honest, I don’t really care. (It didn’t happen unless I see at least photographic evidence in the appropriate context, and even then I tread lightly keeping doubt in mind.)
Unsurprisingly, the laidback golfer didn’t let the rumor mill faze him.
“I just laughed,” he said when asked his reaction to hearing about the speculation. “I mean, it doesn’t bother me. People talk all the time, so people make stuff up, especially when I’m not out here I guess they use their imagination a little too much.”
When people are away from the Tour for that long, it’s noticed and pointed out. Just like upon their return, there’s the custom of the welcome-back-to-our-traveling-circus-family ritual. Whenever the player and caddie show up at the putting green or driving range and first run into their old pals and acquaintances, they’re greeted with big bro hugs. That was the scene on the putting green Monday afternoon when DJ’s caddie Bobby Brown showed up for a quiet cameo and then a more intense version all day on Tuesday.
There’s also a lot of down time in golf. There’s people hanging out on the putting green, the driving range, four to five-plus hours on the golf course, waiting at the valet, etc. The gossip on Tour is second to none, as you can imagine. (You constantly have to remind yourself to believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see.)
“I’ve never been around anything like the PGA Tour when it comes to rumors and gossip,” said David Winkle, Johnson’s agent who has been in the business for 25 years. “It’s insane.”
What does that mean? Well, I’ve joked about this and been accused of being crazy, but now I’ve got corroborating stories. Winkle said the gossip on Tour is “worse” than what his two daughters went through as cheerleaders and sorority sisters. (I can attest to both those, as well.) Not to say we’ve never not been guilty of participating in the chatter or enjoy hearing the so-called dirt. But it happens like it does everywhere, it’s just worse in the golf world (which isn’t a big one, either).
Added Winkle: “There’s always going to be more stuff that swirls around a young single guy than there is a 50-year-old with six grown kids whether you’re talking about sports or anything.”
Oh, isn’t that the truth — only human nature.
I’m not going to get into this right now, but let’s say a player is “innocent” — the speculation and gossip surrounding his absence could have been prevented if the PGA Tour disclosed the punishments it doles out to players. The Tour is in the minority of the majors sports league — if not the only one — that reserves the right not to disclose suspensions and fines. So if Dustin had been suspended, we would have found out in March or April and saved the silly nonsense and trouble of dealing with “setting the record straight.”
Good news is DJ lets it slide off his back, one of his personality traits that have brought him success in his trade.
Limited scouting reports say he struck the ball beautifully during his practice round on Tuesday. Johnson finished a career-best fourth last year at this event, his best showing in four starts at Muirfield Village, where he hasn’t missed a cut.
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)