AUGUSTA, Ga. — The stories are legendary, and not all that flattering. Dustin Johnson and his brother, Austin, look like an excellent team now, a Masters green jacket and a ridiculously good 2020 golf year amid a pandemic all the proof you need.
But when Dustin decided to hire his brother full time to be his caddie in 2013, the reviews were not so good. Using a family member as a fill-in on the bag is one thing; to entrust him with what has become a big-business gig is quite another.
And given some of Johnson’s high-profile, final-round missteps over the years, the move seemed even more curious. The belief was that the care-free, sometimes aloof Johnson needed a steadying influence, an experienced caddie who would guide him through golf’s minefields.
“You ever hear of that movie, ‘Dumb and Dumber?”’ one prominent player asked during a practice round with Johnson several years ago. He then pointed to Dustin and Austin and smiled.
No malice was meant, and certainly all of the players in the game are aware of Johnson’s immense talent, the stuff that was on full display this week at Augusta National, where the golfer won his second major championship by capturing the Masters in record fashion, setting a new mark at 268, 20 under par.
The first hug afterward went to Austin, who has come of age just as his brother has in recent years, forming a partnership that is now quite formidable, as Johnson has a remarkable 24 PGA Tour wins at age 36.
“When I started, I was more of a buddy, someone for him to hang out with,” Austin said beside the Augusta National putting green prior to the green-jacket ceremony. “I’m a decent player. I know the game. But being a top caddie? Not even close.
“But I was a sponge. If I got close to [Jim] Bones Mackay [Phil Mickelson‘s former longtime caddie], I wouldn’t leave his side. I’d ask him everything I could. John Wood [another longtime caddie]. At these team events. I just learned. And earned [Dustin’s] trust. And it’s gotten to where now he’s leaned on me pretty heavily out there. I’m just glad it has worked out the way it has.”
Austin has become a big part of his brother’s success. They work hard together on green reading, and Austin has been there to prod Dustin into working harder on that part of his game, an aspect that at times has held Dustin back.
And there is no denying the results.
Johnson became the first No. 1-ranked player in the world to win the Masters since Tiger Woods did it in 2002. His win at Augusta was his fourth of 2020, including the Tour Championship, which gave him the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup title. Since the beginning of 2015, Johnson has won 15 times worldwide, including the 2016 U.S. Open.
“It’s unbelievable having my brother on the bag,” Johnson said. “He’s a big help, too. He reads the greens a lot for me. He does a great job reading them. I read them, too, but he definitely helps. He’s really good at it. I just love experiencing all these moments with him. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Johnson has always had a reputation of someone who might not have cared enough. Or worked hard enough. Or harnessed his amazing talent. Throw in a caddie who might not have the chops to step in, and there was potential for underachievement.
At times, Dustin fed into the narrative that his brother was more hindrance than help. Most of it was in fun, some of it simply exaggeration. But there were stories of getting simple math wrong to figure out yardages, and all manner of other foibles.
In 2019, when a new version of the Rules of Golf came out, Dustin noted at the year-opening event in Hawaii that he had yet to really study them, that he was asking for a printout — and that he’d be making sure Austin got a copy. When asked how he expected that to go, Dustin said: “Probably not very well.”
Just two months ago, there was an issue at the U.S. Open in which Austin apparently lost his yardage book. It seems that book had fallen to the bottom of the bag. Not wanting to dump all the clubs out, Dustin said they located a backup.
“It was from last week,” Dustin said, joking. “But it worked out well.”
Truth is, Dustin Johnson is more than confident in his brother. And he doesn’t mind making fun of him.
“He’s smarter than you think,” said Rory McIlroy, who played with Johnson during the first two rounds. “He’s switched on, more than he lets on, more so than everyone thinks.”
Johnson used to employ a couple of professional caddies. Bobby Brown — who, as it worked out, was caddying for Sungjae Im in the same group in the final round on Sunday at this Masters — was on his bag for several years, including in 2010 when Johnson shot a final-round 82 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach after holding the 54-hole lead. Brown was there later that year at the PGA Championship, where a huge mistake on the 72nd hole led to another blown opportunity: Johnson didn’t realize he was in what was considered a bunker at Whistling Straits and grounded his club.
Whether those two things led to a change, Johnson hired veteran Joe LaCava — who had worked two decades for Fred Couples — in 2011. But at the end of that year, Tiger Woods lured LaCava away, and Johnson was again in flux. It wasn’t until a couple of events in late 2013 that he went with his brother full time.
“I think that the job that two of them have done, the team that the two of them have become this year has just been phenomenal,” said Claude Harmon III, Johnson’s coach. “It’s been easy for everybody to look at the way DJ plays and just go, ‘Well, you know, anybody can caddie for DJ.’ If you talk to the caddies out here on Tour, they all say that Austin has done a good job.
“If you look at what they’ve done on the greens, they’ve started to get into that routine every single time, and I think that’s been huge for their confidence. I think the work that those two have done, it’s just been amazing.”
More people than expected surrounded the 18th green as Johnson put the finishing touches on his victory. The tournament went without spectators due to the pandemic, but approximately 800 Augusta members, their guests, volunteers and media formed a circle around the green.
And when Johnson walked off, there was two-time champion Bubba Watson, wearing his green jacket, to greet him and welcome him to the club.
“I’ve been dreaming of putting that jacket on my whole life,” Johnson told him.
Johnson, who went with a size 42 long, now has 24 PGA Tour victories, a number surpassed by only Woods (82) and Mickelson (44) among active players. And a Masters victory goes a long way toward validating that U.S. Open triumph four years ago at Oakmont, the lone major that was haunting him because he failed to add to the total.
This weekend, Johnson finally converted when holding at least a share of the 54-hole in a major; before this Masters he was 0-for-4. He’s a Hall of Famer no matter how you look at it, and there is no reason there cannot be bigger things ahead.
But for a guy who grew up in nearby South Carolina, it’s hard for it to get bigger than the Masters. He’s now got a lifetime invitation to one of the game’s most revered places.
“I’ve never had this much trouble gathering myself,” Johnson said following the green-jacket ceremony, tears forming as he could not get the words out.
Off to the side, Woods beamed. He had helped Johnson with the jacket in his role as defending champion, then gave heartfelt hugs to Johnson’s manager, David Winkle, and Austin Johnson. As he watched Dustin Johnson struggle with his words, Woods welled up, as well.
It was a victory that was a long time coming. And it came with a family member who turned from liability into huge asset.