Before writing for a lowbrow college site for a living, I was working my way up the corporate ladder at Golf Channel. For the better part of two years as both an intern and full-time employee with bennies, I did everything from editing instructional videos for hacks to overanalyze and completely ruin their already atrocious swings, to clipping the best parts of Morning Drive — typically anything with Holly Sonders in her infamous mini skirts — so 50-something-year-old perverts could get some feeling back in their pants.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the two-hour breaks I’d take midday to hit countless balls into the golf simulator that was my favorite part of working at GC, but rather it was the stories you’d hear from around tour that wouldn’t see the light of day on the website or on air. The behind-the-scenes shenanigans and tales of the darker side of the country club that would leave the older, naive crowd appalled, and fans of this site the urge to give a prolonged standing ovation.
If only someone would write a book detailing the private lives of professional golfers and give some perspective that wasn’t some cookie cutter, white-washed bullshit narrative full of the same tropes the PGA has fed us since the dawn of the sport. Well, rest easy, golf fans. Someone has finally placed a microscope on the previously unreported side of professional golf, and the stories are incredible.
Shane Ryan, a contributor for both Golf Digest and Grantland, went inside the ropes for the 2014 season for his new book “Slaying the Tiger” (which you can order HERE) and covered the new generation of golfers that are taking the tour by storm. Ryan’s subjects for the book include Rory, Bubba, Reed, Dufner, Day, Fowler, and of course, the two right in the midst of this weekend’s U.S. Open drama, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.
The following is a little taste of what the book has to offer.
First, an excerpt from the Dustin Johnson chapter:
At thirty years old, Dustin Johnson had been suspended at an interesting time for his legacy. You don’t have to be an expert to see that Johnson is one of the game’s best athletes. He’s a lithe, six-foot-four natural who can dunk a basketball with ease, and swings with the God-given combination of finesse and power that other golfers would kill to possess for a single weekend.
He had the most PGA Tour wins of any golfer age thirty or younger prior to that summer, when Rory McIlroy overtook him, and he’s long been seen as a superstar-in-waiting. He’s the first player since Tiger to win a tournament for seven straight seasons coming out of college, and from 2008 to 2013, he was a moneymaking machine, never finishing outside the top fifteen in the FedEx Cup race. In 2014, he even stayed in the top thirty despite missing the final two months of the season.
By golf’s high standards, though, there’s a sense that something’s missing in his career résumé, and that something is a major. In twenty-three starts, Johnson has put up seven top-tens, including a second at the 2011 British Open and his nearest miss of all the 2010 PGA Championship.
Over and over, you hear people close to him express the same sentiment. “If he ever puts his mind to it, he’s going to be the best player in the world.” Okay, but when will that be? Hand in hand with the lack of major wins comes the widespread perception that he’s little more than a dumb jock in a sport that demands cunning and intelligence of its great champions.
His interviews are aggressively dull, he barely seems to register when someone is talking to him, and he has the kind of dead eyes and flat affect that make people think there’s not much going on under the hood.
I spent an hour with Johnson and his younger brother, Austin-A.J. to everyone else, and Dustin’s caddie since late 2013—at the Colonial pro-am in Fort Worth, three months before his suspension. What struck me most in the hour we spent together was how even-keeled Johnson looked at every moment. There’s a sense that nothing can get to him, and whether that’s because he’s not very bright, or because he’s chosen to keep himself behind a sort of wall, is difficult to tell.
There were times, I admit, when he baffled me. At one point, standing on a tee box, one of his pro-am partners approached to ask for an autograph.
“Is this kosher?” the man asked, holding out a yellow flag that was full of other signatures. Johnson barely acknowledged the newcomer as he signed the flag in an empty space.
“There you go,” he said.
“Will you just write ‘To Steve’?” the man asked, pointing to the signature.
Johnson agreed, or at least seemed to. Slowly Johnson does everything with the same languorous pace, as if he’s never been hurried or worried in his entire life—he took the flag and wrote “All the best” above his name.
The man looked again, and hesitated when he realized that the name “Steve” still did not appear anywhere in the signature. He gave it one more shot.
“Do you mind signing it ‘To Steve’?” he asked again.
Johnson slowly looked back. He peered at the flag again,still impossibly calm but a little perplexed, and spotted something.
“Well, they already got their name here,” he said, pointing to the upper-left corner, where another player had written “To Steve” above his own signature.
The man looked up, trying to determine if this was some kind of joke. When Johnson just stared back at him with those emotionless eyes, he broke quickly—you don’t argue with a pro golfer, even if you’ve paid ten thousand dollars to play in a pro-am and made what must have seemed like a very simple request.
“Yeah,” the man said. “That’s awesome.” And he walked away.
For the most part, though, Johnson was fun and friendly with his pro-am partners, despite the fact that this wasn’t his favorite activity of the week. He read putts, he chewed and spit tobacco, and he swore when he hit bad shots—“I blocked the shit out of it!”—just like they were bar buddies playing an afternoon nine at the local muni course.
His brother, A.J., was equally uninhibited. When Johnson’s trainer came by for a hole, I told him I’d read about him online. A.J. eyed the trainer. “I read about you in the bathroom stall,” he deadpanned.
When Dustin hired his brother in late 2013, he joked with the AP that he hadn’t seen A.J.’s résumé and “probably wouldn’t have believed it anyway.” But now, when they weren’t giving each other shit, Dustin tried to crack the whip.
“What’s the yardage, A.J.?” he asked on a long par 4, as his brother rested in the shade of a nearby pecan tree. A.J. fumbled for his book and scrambled over as Johnson’s tone grew sharper. “What’s the yardage, A.J.? How much, A.J.?!”
He made his point, and then it was back to the old banter. I had to wonder what his management team thought about this relationship. Personally, I found it very entertaining, but even before the suspension came down, Johnson didn’t seem like the kind of person who was suited to be the more serious side of a partnership. Still, they won together in China, and he posted solid results in 2014—maybe the dynamic worked.In some ways, the Johnsons had a normal athletic childhood.
Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, they loved being outdoors and spending summer days on friends’ boats on Lake Murray. Dustin started playing golf at the Mid Carolina Club, where his dad, Scott, was the pro. When I asked what their mother Kandee did, Dustin had no idea, and A.J. had to explain that she investigated worker’s compensation claims for the state. Watching his parents, Dustin realized early on that he hated school and never wanted a job that would keep him cooped up inside.
“I could have made straight As no problem,” he told me. “But I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to put forth the effort. I was always really smart with test-taking. I’d make As on every test, but as far as doing homework? Ain’t no chance. Ain’t no chance.”
The Johnsons had a great athletic pedigree—his maternal grandfather got drafted by the Lakers, though he never played a game, and his dad was a star football player in high school. What they didn’t have was money. Johnson became good at earning his own cash, which usually meant hustling grown men at the club. He also worked every possible job at the course—cart boy, maintenance crew, club grill, catering, pro shop—you name it. It gave him a little bit of money and free balls at the driving range, which was critical to his development as a player. I told him I’d been on a golf maintenance crew in high school, too, weed-whacking all day for entire summers—hard, hot, miserable work.
“Fuck yeah, it is,” he said. “I’d pull the carts out in the morning, go play a little bit, wash the carts, and then I’d go out and fuckin’ weedeat. I might sneak a six-pack of beer out of the cooler and I’d weedeat with a few coldies.”
After work, he’d play in “dogfight” matches around the area, hustling for a few extra dollars and honing his competitive instincts.
For fun, he and Austin would go out to a nearby rock quarry and jump from a ledge eighty feet above water’s surface. Once, A.J. managed to fall in sideways, and Dustin had to dive in to fish him out. Things began to fall apart for Johnson in his early teens, when Scott and Kandee divorced and Scott lost his job at the Mid Carolina Club. Johnson began to skip class—“It was like pulling teeth to get me to go,” he said—and got kicked off the golf team as a result.
Six months after he turned sixteen, things got really dark. Steve Gillian, the older brother of Johnson’s friend Clint, put together a gang of boys to rob a local house. The details of the heist are available online in the court docket for the
South Carolina judicial department, and they make for rough reading. Johnson had previously pawned stolen watches for Gillian, but this would be a new level of crime. It went off, and among the items the group stole was a .38 revolver.
When they met Gillian at a gas station afterward, he yelled at them for not stealing anything more valuable. Gillian then asked Johnson to buy bullets for the gun, which Johnson did, under duress, at a Walmart. The next night, Gillian attacked a group of high school kids in their house for evicting his friend from their party. He broke one’s nose with a headbutt, and assaulted several others.
When confronted by his friend Jason Ward—“quit picking on these little high school kids”—he became enraged, and Ward had to punch him and pin him to the ground in order to protect himself. When he finally let his friend up, they left the house together. Later that night, Gillian used the gun Johnson had helped rob, and the bullets from Walmart, to shoot and kill Ward.
And now Jordan Spieth:
Words like “composure” and “polish” follow him around like faithful pets, but even they don’t tell the whole story. Spieth’s maturity is so atypical that you catch yourself looking around for a puppet master, or at least a few strings. Is he a flawless golfing Frankenstein created in a lab run by PR officials? Or just a marketer’s Superman, programmed to say and do the right thing at each moment?
You can count on him to say “Mr. Palmer” and “Mr. Nicklaus” when talking about the legends of the game, and in those rare moments when he lets his on-course emotions stray from the script—as he did in his match against Ernie Els at the Accenture—he issues an immediate apology. He’s the straight-laced, All-American boy, and if you think it’s all an act and that surely he’s got to break character eventually, well . . . don’t hold your breath.
In many ways, he’s the savior the golf establishment has been waiting two decades to find. The concept of golf as a “gentlemen’s game” was always ridiculous, but Tiger put the kibosh on the antiquated notion for good. He fist-pumped, he roared, he intimidated, he swore; he eventually got caught committing adultery on a scale that would have made JFK blush. Everything the man did was inflated—pundits loved to censure him, the Tour loved to fine him, the players loved to hate him, but deep down Tiger never cared. He didn’t have to.
But where was the great white hope? Sure, golf had its share of drab country club clones—an army of them, really—but where was their king? Where was the young gun with the rosy cheeks and the respectful demeanor who could rise to Tiger’s dizzying heights? Where was the kid with the 1950s charm who never said too much? Who had a pleasingly tame sense of humor, and never offended anybody? Who was smart, but strictly of the establishment?
Who was a nice Christian that went to Bible study, but didn’t mention it in every interview? Where was the kid who could remind everyone how great golf had been before Tiger teamed up with Nike to corrupt the whole scene? Golf’s retrogressive element had a fantasy. They fetishized the mythical upright citizen. They longed for the kid who could make their nostalgia tangible and grow into a gentleman superstar.
It wasn’t easy to get a private moment with Spieth. He didn’t necessarily object, but he didn’t seem particularly enthused about the idea. The first time I approached him, after an early round at Riviera in February, he was chatting with a friend outside the clubhouse as a mass of kids screamed his name and demanded autographs. He was moving down the line, and I waited for him at the end.
“Are you going to go practice?” the friend asked.
“No. I’m going back to the hotel to sit on my ass,” Spieth replied, with an air of fatigue.
Behind him, his caddie Michael Greller, a former sixth-grade teacher, stood talking near Spieth’s bag. I noticed the putter cover—it was emblazoned with dollar signs and the words “Cash is King.” When I looked up, Spieth was gone—the first artful vanishing act I would witness, executed whenever he sensed a journalist lurking nearby.
That commenced an odyssey, lasting months, that involved negotiating with agents, asking personal questions in large press conferences, and generally trying to read everything I could about him, including old transcripts and two thorough profiles—one by Golf Digest’s Jim Moriarty and one by Sports Illustrated ’s Alan Shipnuck.
Finally, at the Congressional in June, I found him on the driving range with his agent. I waited for an off moment, and made my last-ditch approach.
“I had an idea,” I said, after handshakes. (In the golf world, each encounter starts with a handshake, even if you see the person every day, and there’s no way around it.) “I get the feeling some guys don’t love the pro-ams,” I continued, “so I was thinking maybe I could join you on the back nine and walk a few holes, and then I wouldn’t bother you the rest of the year.”
It was a laughable gambit: All his agent had to do was continue saying no, easy for him, and I was operating from a position of no power.
“Let me just say,” said Spieth, “I thoroughly enjoy the pro-ams, no matter what the other guys say.”
That was the great white hope in action. I wanted to tell him he didn’t have to lay it on so thick with me, but looking at him, I realized he was totally sincere. This, I thought, is why the keepers of the game love him so much—the crazy bastard actually means it.
The next day I showed up at the tenth hole with my tape recorder. There—after more handshakes—Spieth told me we’d be chatting for only one hole, because he didn’t want to take time away from his pro-am partners, and he had a friend coming to carry his bag the rest of the way.
Bad news, I thought, but what the hell. So for thirteen minutes and thirty seconds I fired questions at him, trying to prioritize and get a year’s worth of work done in a single hole.
When he finished putting out on the tenth green, I shadowed him while he signed flags for the kids lining the ropes. “I’d love to do pictures right after, guys,” he said, and when he spotted a man holding a camera, he politely warned him to keep it out of the way.
I kept walking with him to the tee, trying to squeeze every last second out of our one and only private encounter. Finally, after answering one final question, he turned to me and shook my hand. “I appreciate it, man,” he said. His intent was clear, just as it had been with the kids—he’s learned the veteran’s trick of delivering negative messages with a positive turn of phrase.
Although I was disappointed that our time had been cut short, there was another part of me that felt grateful. Of all the ways I’d been told to fuck off over the course of the year— and there were many—this was by far the nicest.
Like what you’ve read? You can purchase “Slaying the Tiger” HERE.
Image via Shutterstock