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Dustin Johnson's star is on the rise

Pebble Beach winner has the skills to be freakishly good on the PGA Tour.

February 19, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

In a restaurant in the Myrtle Beach area merely six years ago, an 18-year-old golfer once renowned around South Carolina but rather aimless one year after high school met up with a young golf coach at Coastal Carolina University.

Just envisioning the memory, Allen Terrell chuckled Wednesday while walking Riviera Country Club, and he said, "He came in with a T-shirt and his hat on backward, which is probably not the best way to meet your potential coach for the first time."

They've laughed about it since then, and if they wanted they could laugh more and more, because as the Northern Trust Open begins today at Riviera with half the world's top 20 in the field, golf's latest 20-something phenomenon just bolted from No. 119 to No. 45.

He's Dustin Johnson, the winner of two of his last nine tournaments including the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and he's also the 24-year-old update of the guarded, unsure teen from six years ago.

"I've always known that I can do it," Johnson said Wednesday, "so it's really good to prove it."

To Coastal Carolina came not only a golfer known for big drives, but also an athlete with amazing hand-to-eye coordination.

In a practice round last year before the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Johnson played alongside Steve Flesch and, on No. 18, experimented with Flesch's wedge. He took one swing, pitched it up and over the water and landed it on the green and spun it back toward the cup.

That would not be so uncanny except for the fact that Johnson plays right-handed and Flesch plays left-handed. "It was one of those moments where there was dead silence," Terrell said. "That was pretty impressive. Over the water, with U.S. Open conditions. I've got it on tape."

Cameron Hooper, Johnson's roommate during his last year in college, recalls Johnson banging one 300 yards left-handed in college, and said, "I've seen him dunk barefoot on a 10-foot rim."

That kind of thing could trace to his maternal grandfather, Art Whisnant, who coached Johnson in seventh- and eighth-grade basketball, and remembers him as the kid who'd rebound the ball over everybody, then race downcourt for the layup. Whisnant's belief that Johnson could've become a dreamy basketball player gains merit from Whisnant's past as a first-team all-ACC center for South Carolina in 1962 and a fifth-round draft choice by the Lakers.

("Coming out of the mountains of North Carolina to a city like that, I was ready to go home!" he said by telephone from South Carolina of his time at Lakers rookie camp before he didn't make the team. "Back then, the traffic was bad. Well, what I consider bad.")

To get from there to here, Johnson upgraded his short game, helped Coastal Carolina soar to a fifth-place finish in the 2007 NCAA tournament and maintained this booming but oddly low-grade assurance. "He always had that confidence," his roommate Hooper said, "but he never got hyped up. He was never that cocky guy that would put it in your face. Just a real good kid."

Asked at Pebble Beach if he felt comfortable with a four-shot lead after three rounds, Johnson kept the answer to: "Yeah."

After turning up disheveled and disorganized six years ago, he has morphed into a grown-up who impresses Terrell, still his coach, with how he organizes Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. In that process, his emergence from a rocky adolescence gained invaluable support from a grandmother, Carole J. Jones.

She moved to Myrtle Beach not far from the university, attended his matches clear to Britain for the Walker Cup, dined with him weekly and e-mailed all creation with his feats. She also got to see him play on the tour, at the Verizon Heritage in Hilton Head during the spring of Johnson's rookie year of 2008, before she died unexpectedly in May of complications from back surgery.

"That's the last time I saw her," Terrell said. "You couldn't have snapped a picture of a more proud person."

He knew that with her help and with something he saw in Johnson but can't quite place, the kid at the restaurant would thrive. He just never thought only six years hence he'd follow the new sensation around a place like Riviera.

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Today's tee times

Start times for the groupings at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club:

FIRST TEE

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