I COULD PALM a basketball when I was in seventh grade," says Dustin Johnson. To shake his large paw is to feel puny, an experience akin to meeting Byron Nelson, who possessed similarly massive hands. As far as we know, though, Lord Byron couldn't dunk. Dustin Johnson can. He can dunk in street shoes, he says, or even barefoot. There is no reason to doubt him. He is 6'4", 190 pounds and has the build of a defensive back. The sight of him on the range pounding 320-yard drives from here to the TPC at Smithereens brings about the instant realization that, thanks yet again to Tiger Woods, we have entered a new era of athleticism in golf. � Johnson, a 23-year-old rookie from Columbia, S.C., who finished a 54th at Bay Hill, personifies just how good you have to be to make it to the PGA Tour. He leads a band of talented new faces who have already made strong impressions in the first two months (chart, page G14). You may not notice them in upcoming limited-field events such as the World Golf Championship's CA Championship and the Masters, but give them time. The PGA Tour is a tough nut to crack.
The class of '07 was considered one of the best crops of college talent in years. Yet Johnson was the only one to make it through the Tour's qualifying tournament. In fact, the two-time first-team All-America at Coastal Carolina won the Q school's first stage by eight shots, was a shot out of first in the second stage and overcame a few nervous moments on the closing nine to get through the final stage. He finished 14th and easily got his Tour card, but that final round, he admits, was hell. "I've never been so nervous in my life," Johnson says. Not even at the Walker Cup, at which he went 3-1-1 and led the Americans to victory last summer? Nope. How about last month at Pebble Beach, where he teed off in Sunday's final group with Dudley Hart and Vijay Singh and finished seventh, four shots out of a playoff? Not even close, he says.
It's been a heady start for a kid who used to pound balls after closing time at a lighted range with the glamorous name Weed Hill. His father, Scott Johnson, a club pro, had him try out for the Irmo High varsity golf team as a seventh-grader. Johnson not only made the roster, he also earned all-- South Carolina honors with a top 10 at the state tournament.
Johnson has made it appear just about that easy on the PGA Tour too. Most Q schoolers have a tough time simply getting into tournaments. They're initially given priority according to how they finished at Q school. After the West Coast swing, their status is reshuffled based on money winnings. Johnson finished 10th in the first full-field event of the season, the Sony Open, which earned him a spot at the Buick Invitational, at which he wound up 37th. In between he was given a sponsor's exemption for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and placed 12th, taking home his second six-figure check. Then his top 10 at Pebble Beach earned him a spot at Riviera. At the conclusion of the West Coast events his $446,000-plus had him near the top of the reshuffle and scored him berths in the first three events of the Florida swing.
Johnson's strength and athleticism are paving the way. He's averaging 303 yards off the tee, fourth longest on Tour. He's also near the top in putter-switching, jokes Allen Terrell, Johnson's coach at Coastal Carolina who now serves as a swing teacher and surrogate big brother. "You're 23, there's a trailer at every stop, and a lot of product you can try," Terrell says. "We're trying to get him to work on his stroke rather than just change putters, but DJ is sampling the candy right now. That's part of being a rookie."
The two try to get together every 10 days or so to spot-check Johnson's swing, which means Terrell logged serious red-eye miles when Johnson played the West Coast. But he's confident the effort will pay off. "[Dustin's] exceptionally long, and he doesn't get rattled," Terrell says. "If he plays the par-5s on the back nine at Pebble Beach under par the last round, he wins. He played them three over. But he wasn't down about his finish—it was confirmation of what he's worked on. Now he knows if he tightens those things up, he can win out here. The thing about DJ is, he's relentless."
Asked if he had a backup plan if he hadn't gotten through Q school, Johnson shakes his head and says, "No, never crossed my mind, really." Maybe that's why although Johnson gave up basketball in junior high, success at this level looks like something he is very familiar with—a slam dunk.