Everyone saw Dustin Johnson slip on the green jacket, win the FedEx Cup, and rise to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, but the foundation for those successes was laid far from the spotlight.
Long before the media was chronicling DJ’s every move, the native South Carolinian was building toward a career that will one day see him enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and his long-time coach, Allen Terrell, has been there every step of the way.
Terrell, now the director of instruction at the Dustin Johnson Golf School, recruited DJ to Coastal Carolina University and has worked with him the last 16 years. Following the win at the Masters, we caught up with Terrell and asked him to reflect Johnson’s meteoric rise.
— “Did you know he was going to be this good?” It’s a question Terrell has heard more than a few times and the answer is, No.
“I never put expectations on players like they should do this or they should do that,” Terrell said. “There are so many things that control someone’s success.”
He did recognize his young star’s talent, but it didn’t translate into immediate results. As a freshman at Coastal, DJ had only two top 20 finishes in 10 events, including a sixth place showing at the Big South Championship, and averaged 75.6 strokes per round.
— The light came on for Johnson as a sophomore, culminating with him winning medalist honors in the NCAA East Regional. Johnson made a double bogey to open the final round of the regional and scuffled along to play the next six holes in even par.
Then everything changed.
“On the 17th (he started on No. 10), he knocked one on the par 5 in two – he is still two over to his credit – and a storm came through and we had to come off the course,” Terrell said. “He goes back out and makes a 40-50 foot putt for eagle, and then he birdies the next five holes to win the East Regional.”
It was a scintillating stretch at the Golf Club of Tennessee that propelled Coastal to nationals for the first time ever and it was in some ways, DJ’s coming out party.
“That was when he broke the ceiling and hasn’t stopped,” Terrell said.
His accomplishments as a junior and senior are too numerous to mention, but by that point it was clear: Dustin was a collegiate star who appeared to have a future on the PGA Tour.
— If you want Terrell to get emotional talking about Dustin’s rise, ask him about DJ’s decision to delay turning pro so he could represent the United States in the Walker Cup. Johnson could’ve played professionally during the summer of 2007 – sponsor’s exemptions wouldn’t have been an issue – but he opted to remain an amateur and represent his country at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. That star-studded team included Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson, and DJ partnered with Colt Knost to halve a foursomes match against a Great Britain and Ireland team that featured some guy named Rory McIlroy. The US won 12 ½ to 11 ½, and it was a small window into the importance DJ places on representing the stars and stripes.
— Whether he is playing the back nine at Augusta or a recreational round at TPC Myrtle Beach, Johnson casually strides each fairway like a man without a care in the world. Ask him a question at a press conference and the answer will be, to put in kindly, concise. Golf’s various talking heads constantly refer to his unflappability.
Don’t take any of those things to mean DJ is indifferent to the game. If there is one thing people misunderstand about Johnson, it’s his commitment to being great. He cares – a lot.
This is a guy who could bank millions of dollars a year piling up stress free top 10 finishes, but he hasn’t settled. Johnson has continued to improve his game and the result is a career arc that has taken him from being a good player to one who may be remembered as the best of his generation.
“He doesn’t pound on his chest and say, ‘Look at me,’” Terrell said. “He doesn’t talk about anyone else, he doesn’t criticize. I don’t know if I have ever heard him say something negative about someone else. It’s just not his deal. He takes responsibility (for his game), and he lets his clubs do the talking.”
Those clubs have had plenty to say over the last six months.