Clearly Johnson has the physical tools. But Augusta National is the sport's most exacting stage, demanding much more than simply titanium-denting pyrotechnics. If Johnson is to prevail at the Masters, he will have to summon new levels of discipline and determination and clear-eyed thinking. Whether he can do so is of a piece with the larger questions that now hang over his career. Says Harmon, parroting the naysayers, "Does he want it bad enough? I think so. But it's up to Dustin to prove it."
Johnson has been afloat more or less since birth. His family ran a commercial marina on Lake Mary in Columbia, S.C., and when Dustin was a baby his father used to strap a crib into the back of his bass boat and take him along on fishing expeditions. According to family lore, the motion of the boat rocked Johnson into a deep sleep.
He inherited more than just a love of the water from his athletic family. His 6'4" grandfather, Art Whisnant, was an all-conference basketball player at South Carolina in the early 1960s. Scott Johnson played football, basketball and baseball in high school, and his son proved to be just as versatile an athlete; growing up Dustin was a goal-scoring machine in soccer, a shortstop and pitcher in baseball and a rare point-center in basketball, bringing the ball up the court and patrolling the middle on defense. "No joke, Dustin could have gotten a Division I scholarship in three or four sports," says A.J., who played three seasons as a shooting guard for the College of Charleston. "He was that good at everything he did. But he liked golf the best."
Scott Johnson pursued a career as a teaching professional at Columbia's Mid Carolina Club, and under his tutelage Dustin quickly became a schoolboy legend around the state. Many of his deeds have the ring of myth, except they're true. As a seventh-grader Johnson played varsity golf for Dutch Fork High. One day he shot a 64 at Golden Hills Golf & Country Club in Lexington. It would have been a course record, but the club refused to recognize it because he had accepted a gimme on a short putt early in the round. "Shoot, I didn't care," Johnson says. But he came back the next day and putted out everything, shooting another 64. In eighth grade, on the day of the end-of-the-season banquet for the golf squad, Johnson and his teammates played a quick nine holes at the Club at Rawls Creek in Irmo. He shot a sporty 28. "Coach told me to forget about the banquet and try for the course record," says Johnson. He tweaked his back on the second nine, hit three balls out-of-bounds . . . and still got home in 35 for a 63 and another course record.
Johnson's rep only became more outsized in college, at Coastal Carolina. There was the time during practice when he made an ace and a double eagle—on back-to-back holes—using the same club, a four-iron. Says Allen Terrell, the coach at Coastal Carolina, "Against Duke he chipped in on the last hole to give the team a win. At Augusta State his senior year he shot 30 on the back nine so we could win again. I can't even remember all the big shots. He made so many important final-hole birdies for us."
Johnson's flair for the dramatic—and his awesome power—captured the imagination of the golfing world even as he was toiling for a small-time college program. His agent, David Winkle, recalls one particular moment when he was scouting Johnson: "It was a 330-yard par-4, big dogleg left, and his two playing partners hit their best drivers well short of the green. Dustin hit this absolutely majestic tee ball that fell out of the sky about 15 feet from the flag. I was behind the green, and as he's walking off I congratulated him on a great shot. And he says, 'Dude, it was a perfect three-wood.' I remember thinking very clearly at that moment, Someday this kid is going to own Augusta National."
He remained utterly unfazed even as the spotlight got hotter. In September 2007 he represented the U.S. at the Walker Cup at Royal County Down. In the first match of the competition, Johnson was in a foursomes match against Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, a boy wonder with a huge home field advantage. Terrell was standing by the tee. "Rory hits a great drive and the crowd goes crazy," he says. "It takes a while for everyone to settle down. Finally Dustin steps up and just smashes one. The people jump back like a freight train is roaring through there. They had never seen anything like it. It was stone silence. We walked off that drive at 403 [yards]."
Johnson turned pro shortly thereafter and breezed through Q school to earn a place on the PGA Tour. Near the end of his rookie year he was in danger of losing his card before he came out of nowhere to win the Turning Stone Resort Championship in Verona, N.Y. In 2009 he won again, at Pebble Beach, and had two more top five finishes, setting the stage for his breakthrough last year. The down-home Whisnant has a simple explanation for his grandson's seamless rise to the brink of superstardom: "He's always done what he needs to do when it needs to be done."
On a sunny afternoon last October, Johnson was hanging out in his Myrtle Beach starter home, a relatively modest pad in a quiet development far from the Grand Strand. Amanda Caulder was there too, barefoot, in shorts and a T-shirt, a vision of willowy loveliness, which she comes by naturally; her lunch on this day, at a sandwich shop in a minimall, was a BLT with extra cheese, on a croissant, with a fried egg, washed down by a cinnamon roll. Sliding around on the hardwood floors and launching himself onto the furniture and dispensing copious amounts of love was Max, the Old English sheepdog that Johnson got for Amanda as a present when she graduated from Coastal Carolina with a degree in health sciences in 2008. (On a coffee table was the book Food to Live By and a guide to planting your own organic vegetable garden.)
Caulder sat at the dining room table, sorting through teetering piles of mail. It should be noted that Johnson's galleries tend to skew female. At this year's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am he was ambling between the 16th green and the 17th tee when a lascivious fortysomething woman catcalled, "Seeeeeexxxxxy." Johnson simply smiled and kept walking. His amateur partner, Joe Rice, said, "That's not the first time something like that has happened." Caulder has come across a few suggestive pieces of fan mail. Sitting at the dining room table she said, "This one letter began, 'My boyfriend and I followed you in Akron. We recently broke up. . . .' The girl included her phone number, so I called her. I said, 'Hello, I'm Dustin's assistant and his girlfriend, and I wanted to let you know we received your letter.'" Then Amanda sent the young woman an autographed golf ball.