The most treasured correspondence Johnson has received came in the wake of the PGA Championship fiasco. It was from Byron Nelson's widow, Peggy. "You handled the situation at the PGA in such a wonderfully gentlemanly, sportsmanlike way," she wrote. "Byron would have been proud of you. I'm still seething with righteous indignation." She also included a $300 check, passing on a debt of gratitude that extends back to the 1939 Hershey Open. As Peggy explained in the letter, Byron was leading that tournament when he piped a seemingly perfect drive to the blind 15th fairway. Inexplicably the ball could not be found, even after a long search by the gallery. Nelson was forced to declare the ball lost and re-tee, eating the two strokes that ultimately sent him skidding to fourth place. Weeks later an anonymous letter arrived, in which a remorseful fan said that his lady friend had cluelessly picked up the ball and put it in her purse, which the letter writer didn't discover until the train ride home. Included was a check for $300, the difference between first- and fourth-place money.
"It's a pretty cool story," says Johnson, with typical understatement.
In the wake of the PGA—not to mention the final-round blowup at the U.S. Open—Johnson said over and over that the disappointment lasted only a matter of hours and that there was no emotional scar tissue. It was hard to believe, but those closest to Johnson marvel at his ability to move on.
"I've never, ever seen him upset about anything," says Whisnant.
"He's the most laid-back guy in the world," says A.J. Johnson. "Nothing bothers him. I flew home with him from the Open, and by the time we landed in South Carolina it was like nothing had happened. I'm pretty sure I was way more disappointed than he was."
Yet this equanimity has been tested so far in 2011. The drama began in January at the season opener in Maui, when Gulbis followed Johnson during the third round. The crowds are always light at Kapalua, and, frankly, Gulbis was hard to miss in a very mini skirt. The TV cameras found her on the back nine, but Golf Channel made the editorial decision not to show her on the telecast. A couple of photographers also spotted her. I was waiting near the clubhouse to speak with Johnson after his round when Gulbis sashayed past. She gave me a hug and we chatted for about 20 minutes, with Gulbis talking openly about her budding relationship with Johnson. They had first hung out when both were competing in the Wendy's 3-Tour Challenge in November. Gulbis said she traveled to the ensuing Skills Challenge and Shark Shootout to see Johnson. By December rumors had begun to swirl about a possible romance, but it had never been confirmed. In finally doing so in Hawaii, Gulbis asked not to be quoted extensively, saying, "I'll let Dustin handle our p.r." Then she bid adieu to meet him at his hotel.
Reached by phone in his room a little while later, Johnson said he was busy and asked for a return call in an hour. He never picked up again.
I was not eager to publicize their private lives, but a coupling of one of the Tour's most telegenic young stars with one of the planet's most attractive female athletes is not an easy secret to keep. Complicating matters was the intimacy of the event; staying at the same resort as Johnson were numerous writers, agents, caddies and Tour staffers. Since the news was bound to break, I figured it might as well come from me. My story was posted that evening on Golf.com, and almost instantly the golf world was atwitter. During the final round Golf Channel showed Gulbis in the gallery, and then, after the round, Johnson announced he was withdrawing from the ensuing week's Sony Open and heading home to South Carolina.
The speculation and innuendo were so unrelenting that five days later Johnson did a phone interview with The Associated Press, telling Doug Ferguson that he and Caulder had broken up months earlier. "For people to say I went home to repair the relationship is completely false," Johnson said. "We're not in a relationship."
A person close to Johnson confirms the timing, saying, "That's how those two are. They've broken up and gotten back together a bunch of times through the years."