In early 1991, I worked with Tom Weiskopf on a story about the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., for Golf Magazine in advance of that year’s Ryder Cup. We met for dinner the night before we were to see the course for the first time, and I wanted to pick the brain of what I believed to be one of the most thoughtful people in golf.
“Who’s done the most with the least talent?” I asked.
“That’s easy,” he said. “Tom Kite.”
“Who’s done the least with the most talent?” I asked.
“You mean besides me?” he responded.
Weiskopf was being incredibly hard on himself. He won 16 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1973British Open at Royal Troon. He is arguably the best player of his era not in the World Golf Hall of Fame. In three of his victories, the runner-up was Jack Nicklaus.
But what bugged Weiskopf the most was the four second-place finishes in the Masters, most famously in 1975 when he had an 8-foot putt for birdie on the 72nd hole to tie Nicklaus, the eventual winner. Weiskopf said he would trade the Hall of Fame for just one green jacket. And he had five top-four finishes in the U.S. Open, including four in a row from 1976 to 1979.
Weiskopf was tall, strong and could drive it miles. His golf swing was a near-perfect blend of grace and power. He had all of the physical tools, but he always thought that he underachieved.
The Weiskopf of this generation is Dustin Johnson, except that Johnson probably doesn’t think he’s an underachiever. Johnson has won 18 times on the PGA Tour since 2008, including the 2016 U.S. Open.
© GOLFFILE / BRIAN SPURLOCK
Could Dustin Johnson, with only 1 major championship among his 18 PGA Tour victories, be regarded as an underachiever?
He’s tall, strong and drives it miles. He has all of the physical tools. But what could Johnson have accomplished by now had he fulfilled his almost unlimited potential? In 2010, he had a three-shot lead after 54 holes of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He shot 82 in the final round.
Later that year at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, he held a one-shot lead at the 72nd hole and appeared to make bogey from a sandy area off the fairway. Instead, he was hit with a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a bunker, missing the playoff with eventual winner Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.
In 2011, Johnson was in the hunt for the British Open at Royal St. George’s when he shanked a 2-iron out of bounds while going for the par-5 14th in two. He wound up tied for second with Phil Mickelson, behind Darren Clarke.
In 2012, Johnson’s personal life began to unravel. He stayed off the Tour for two months following a mysterious back injury. In 2014, he announced he was taking a voluntary six-month leave of absence from the tour for “personal challenges.”
Sports Illustrated reported that Johnson’s departure was because of the third of three positive drug tests, this one for cocaine. The magazine said that Johnson had a positive test for marijuana in 2009 and a positive for cocaine in 2012.
Weiskopf admittedly had an alcohol problem while he was on Tour and quit drinking in 2000. He believes he could have achieved much more in his golf career had he stopped earlier.
Also, Weiskopf said he was not as single-minded as he should have been to be considered one of the best players in the world.
“Golf was never the most important thing,” he told Golf Magazine in 2014. “It was an avenue to get me to the things I really enjoyed. Customized shotguns and rifles, the finest scopes – golf led me there. Also, it was my personality. I just wasn't driven. When you realize what it takes to play the game properly, it's too late.”
In early 2017, Johnson was nearly untouchable. He won three straight starts – the Genesis Open, the WGC Mexico Championship and the WGC Dell Match Play. He was the clear favorite to win the Masters, but a slip-and-fall in his rental house on the eve of the tournament led to a withdrawal.
Butch Harmon, Johnson’s swing instructor, called out his pupil in May for not preparing enough.
“How do we get him back? I think he’s got to work a little harder,” Harmon told Golf Channel. “He’s got to go back to the things he was doing then. D.J.’s kind of a laid-back guy, as you know. . . . He enjoys his life. He enjoys his time off. But I think he’s got to put in a little more work and a little more time.”
Johnson held a four-shot lead after 36 holes of the recent U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Even after a third-round 77, he was tied for the lead with Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Daniel Berger going into Sunday. Johnson was paired with Koepka and once again, couldn’t get the job done, one more good chance squandered.
Johnson is only 34 years old and has plenty of time to enhance his resume and standing in professional golf. What he doesn’t want to do is look back 10 or 15 years from now and wonder “what if.”
Weiskopf knows exactly how that feels.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter:@mikepurkeygolf