Art Whisnant called one spring morning about 20 years ago, and the timing suggested the University of South Carolina basketball legend wanted to talk about “his” game and its March Madness.
Instead, he had a message he wanted to share with the world.
“My grandson’s going to be a great golfer,” he declared without reservation. No “may be.” No “if,” “ands” or “buts.” Just a statement of fact.
Another doting grandparent with visions of grandeur — or a prophetic judge of athletic talent?
History leaves no doubt.
He called that day to sing the praises of Dustin Johnson.
Whisnant died recently, but the man whose name still is prominent in USC basketball lore lived long enough to see his grandson overcome a few bumps in the road to carve out what will be a hall-of-fame career.
Johnson, a Columbia native who grew up in Irmo, starred at Dutch Fork High and Coastal Carolina University before starting on the path that fulfilled his granddad’s philosophy, returns this week to the scene of his greatest triumph: Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters.
The trip started at now-defunct Weed Hill Driving Range in Irmo. Those who “knew him when” look back in admiration at the man he has become — on and off the golf course.
IN THE BEGINNING
Maybe a dog story is the place to start.
While giving a lesson to Scott Johnson, Dustin’s dad, Jimmy Koosa noticed a youngster, maybe 6 or 7 years old, sitting on a golf bag and making nice to Katherine, Weed Hill’s Doberman guard dog.
“She didn’t like kids; I couldn’t believe it,” said Koosa, the PGA of American pro who operated Weed Hill for more than 30 years. “He must have been sharing his crackers with her.”
Long story short, Koosa asked young Dustin, “Why don’t you hit a few?”
Koosa, whose company operates two area golf stores and manages Timberlake Country Club, saw a diamond in the rough.
“Very natural from the start,” Koosa remembered. “It was quickly obvious that he was very open to coaching and responded to coaching. He had what I call ‘an eye’ for the game. You could demonstrate something and he would pick it up easily.
“He watched other players who were good, and he did what they did. The big thing is, he enjoyed it, and he worked and worked at it. If you don’t work at it, you won’t go anywhere.”
If not at Weed Hill or across the road at Coldstream, the young Dustin strove to refine his game at Mid-Carolina Club, where his dad was the professional.
“He would be on the tee at Mid-Carolina until dark, or if he was (at Weed Hill), he would practice past closing time,” Koosa said. “I’d tell him, ‘Turn out the lights and close the gate when you leave.’
“He wasn’t the only one who did that, but it just shows how much he wanted to improve. If you don’t work, you won’t go anywhere, and he worked.”
Did he see a Masters’ champion in those halcyon days at Weed Hill?
“As a teacher, it’s very special to have a relationship with the No. 1 player in any sport,” Koosa said. “I never thought about that in our days together. If you think a young player is going to be great, you’re wrong most of the time. With young people I teach, I just hope they can play in college.”
Dustin did that. He did more.
UP THE LADDER
Pro Chris Miller did double-duty in those days, heading up the South Carolina Golf Association’s junior program and coaching the Dutch Fork High boys’ golf team.
“At 14, you could see Dustin could be pretty good,” Miller said. “He was fun to watch.”
But Johnson ran with the wrong crowd, faced some major hurdles and transferred from Irmo High to Dutch Fork for his junior year. But high school golf? Nah.
“He would be at Weed Hill or Coldstream all day with a bunch of guys who played high school golf,” Miller said. “But he didn’t play in many (SCJGA) tournaments with both parents working. He played some AJGA events, but there was nothing then like the kids today who play 20 or more tournaments a year.”
Prior to his senior year, “some of his buddies talked to him and said, ‘Come on and play for Dutch Fork. We’ll have some fun,’ ” Miller said.
Steven Hartwig laughed at Miller’s “talked to him” description. “We had to beg,” said Hartwig, now professional at the Country Club of Lexington.
Mark Giles took over the coaching duties, and Johnson joined fellow seniors Hartwig, Chris Colomb, Matt Bryant and Adam Dox to form a powerhouse squad that lost only one tournament all season and won the 2002 Class 4A state championship by 26 strokes.
“We had a big rivalry with South Aiken,” Hartwig said. “They had (PGA Tour winner) Kevin Kisner and Dane Burkhart and those boys, and Dustin gave us a little more ammo.”
His value: In the state tournament at Furman, Dutch Fork led South Aiken by one stroke after the first round. Johnson reeled off four quick birdies early in the second round to provide a spark, and the Silver Foxes opened a 15-shot advantage en route to the record-breaking finish.
A trivia note: Dox, at 1-under-par 215, posted Dutch Fork’s low score in the state tournament. Johnson finished at 218.
But no college coaches waited with scholarship offers for Johnson.
“Dustin didn’t really blossom until after his junior year,” Miller said. Plus, he had a laissez-faire attitude and a major run-in with the law from which he received a pardon, and he skipped school now and then.
“He was never a bad kid,” Miller said. “He just got into stupid situations. By the time coaches would notice, the colleges already had their recruits.”
Johnson took some courses at Midlands Tech after high school graduation and a fortuitous phone call landed him at Coastal Carolina.
“(Coastal coach) Allen Terrell called and asked if I knew of any prospects,” Miller said. “I told him, ‘There a guy that shot 65-64-65 this week at Coldstream and Golden Hills, and he does it all the time.’
“Allen became a strong presence in his life. Allen gave him a format, a regimen, that put discipline in his life and in his game.”
Hartwig agreed, saying, “Allen Terrell took him and ran with it. He changed him from a good golfer to a great golfer.”
COMING OUT PARTY
In the summer of 2003, prior to enrolling at Coastal, the 19-year-old Johnson entered the Columbia City Golf Championship. He made his presence felt immediately.
“It was obvious he had a lot of potential,” said Steve Liebler, an All-American player at USC who enjoyed some PGA Tour success before regaining his amateur status. “He would be referred to today as pretty phenomenal. He had such great length at an early age. You can’t teach that, and he did it effortlessly.
“He had what I call a quiet, confident attitude. Some people might think he was cocky, but he was shy, almost introverted, around adults at a young age. But you knew he could play. He didn’t have to tell you; you could see it.
“His confidence said, ‘I’m here and I’m the guy you’re going to have to beat.’ Really, he had things you can’t teach.”
Johnson played in three city tournaments, winning in 2003 and ’04, and finishing second to Liebler in 2005.
Liebler, a frequent player in USGA national events who won the city tourney 11 times, and Johnson engaged in a tight duel in 2003 at Woodcreek and came down the stretch neck and neck. Then, the younger player showed his mettle.
“He hit a wedge in there on No. 16 for his second shot that was an indication of his ability,” Liebler said. “Some would have played conservatively; he played fearlessly. Some people couldn’t believe he tried that shot, but he wasn’t afraid to do what he thought he could do. And he did it.”
Robert Dargan, whose credentials include a pair of city championships and two State Mid-Amateur titles plus USGA competition, remembered Johnson’s working with the carts at Columbia Country Club one summer and, he said, “We knew he could play.”
He proved that in his city tournaments, and Dargan got a first-hand look in a 2005 pairing at Spring Valley. Dargan played the par-5 12th hole with a driver and 7-iron. Johnson used drive and wedge. Then, he reached the long 18th in two shots.
“Davis Love in a college tournament and playing with a balata ball is the only other player I’ve seen who could do that,” Dargan said.
More than Johnson’s golf game impressed Dargan.
“He’s always been humble,” Dargan said. “When we played together, he kept saying, ‘Yes, sir.’ I had to tell him, ‘Hey, I’m Robert.’ He was always a pleasure to play with, and he handled himself with class after that U.S. Open when he three-putted the final hole on the lousy greens and the U.S. Open when the USGA made a mess of the ruling.”
Said Liebler: “What I really appreciated is how he handles success. Regardless of the win and earnings in his career, he doesn’t change. He’s in his own little world on the golf course and doesn’t worry about what others thing. He’s not afraid of work and he’s worked to refine his game.
“He’s just himself; he’s got his secret. He’s like Colonel Sanders who won’t give up his recipe. Neither will Dustin.”
SAME OL’ DUSTIN JOHNSON
Koosa hung the nickname “Hickory Nut” on Johnson and recounted a story from the first year Dustin played in the Masters.
“He came down the fairway during a practice round and I hollered, “Hey, Hickory Nut,’ ” Koosa said. “He did a double-take, then came over and gave me a big hug.”
Hartwig has a similar he-knows-where-he-came-from story, this one prior to the 2019 RBC Heritage.
“Our son Skylar wanted to get Dustin’s autograph and I told him, ‘Go for it,’ ” Hartwig said. “Now, here comes Dustin down the autograph line with his head down, signing and moving on to the next person.
“He got to Skylar and was signing, and Skylar said, ‘My dad played high school golf with you.’ Dustin stopped and asked, ‘Who’s your dad?’ Skylar told him and Dustin said, ‘You’re Little Twig.’
“That just shows how he keeps a link to the past. Dustin knows we’re here for him.”
Johnson’s victory in the Masters reduced Miller to tears.
“Two great memories,” he said. “I walked the ropes when Wesley (Bryan) won the Heritage and I watched Dustin on television in the Masters. Two guys from our junior program winning big ones. My wife couldn’t understand how somebody could get so emotional over a golf tournament.”
Koosa watched the Masters, too, and said his first act after the final putt dropped was to say a prayer to Johnson’s late grandmother, Carole Jones.
“She was such a special influence on Dustin,” Koosa said. “She kept after Allen (Terrell) to take Dustin at Coastal. I said, ‘I know you’re watching, and I’m sure you saw that.’
“I’ll tell you this: Even with all his success on the golf course, I’m prouder of the man he has become.”
2021 Masters TV broadcast schedule
Thursday: 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN
Friday:: 3-7:30 p.m., ESPN
Saturday: 3-7 p.m., CBS
Sunday: 2-7 p.m., CBS