If one word could describe the news cycle surrounding the Dustin Johnson saga, it would be this: Escalation.
On Monday, Johnson had simply withdrawn from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational due to the ever-vague “personal reasons.” Three days later, he shockingly announced a leave of absence from golf that would span a number of months, citing “personal challenges.”
And then, BOOM!
On Friday a Golf.com report surfaced that the PGA Tour suspended Johnson for six months courtesy of a positive drug test for cocaine. And apparently it wasn’t his first time. The report also alleged, via an unnamed source, that Johnson previously failed a drug test in 2009 for marijuana and another in 2012 for cocaine, one which resulted in a suspension that explained an 11-week absence from competition.
The PGA Tour has since denied that the 30-year-old is suspended, an unusual step for an entity that professes to never replying to speculation on disciplinary action.
While Johnson is no Tiger or Phil, he remains one of the game’s brightest stars. In the past some believed he might be the successor to Tiger’s crown, and others still hold onto the possibility that he could be one of the game’s few preeminent stars if he ever got his head on straight on major championship Sundays and displayed a work ethic that outpaced at least one player in the World Top 10.
How did the media cover these unfoldings and how did the collective public react? Well, it appears the more moralistic the game, the more starved the population is for gossip.
Heading back to the pre-suspension news, there was always a healthy sense of skepticism about Johnson’s words and actions early in the week. Some fans believed this “self-imposed voluntary absence” was truly that, but many others smelled something sour. And more than a few in the golfing media really put the fan base on alert.
All of which made sense. Johnson’s withdrawal Monday was followed by an odd Instagram post of him caddying barefoot for his fiancée Paulina Gretzky while holding a beverage. The photo was later deleted. The months-long leave of absence notice Thursday came seemingly out of nowhere, and considering the PGA Tour’s policy of not disclosing suspensions, it wasn’t much of a stretch to say that is what was afoot.
Once the suspension news broke though, the pent-up desire for drama unleashed itself on the golfing sphere.
The range of reactions among fans cleared the full spectrum, from “no need for punishment, Dustin’s just having fun” to “He should be banned for life!” Multiple reporters then revealed that Johnson’s alleged affinity for drugs is such an ill-kept secret in the Tour’s inner circle that it’s borderline common knowledge.
Golf Channel’s Jason Sobel relayed a quote from a Tour caddy, who upon hearing about Johnson’s “leave of absence,” responded, “What, did he hurt himself lifting another Jet Ski?” (A reference to Johnson’s claim for missing those 11 weeks in the middle of the 2012 season. Clearly, the caddy didn’t buy it.)
And the New York Daily News’ Hank Gola quoted a source saying that “It was probably just a matter of time before [news of Johnson’s drug use] came out. It was pretty widely known.”
Of course, this also proved to be a time to bash the PGA Tour’s policy of withholding disciplinary information. Bob Harig of ESPN.com probably gave the policy the most vehement tongue lashing.
The juiciest Internet exchange regarding Johnson though did not involve information on his suspension at all. The Golf.com report slipped in a salacious detail that, while questionable to include in a report about an alleged suspension due to drugs, captured the most attention: Johnson had committed a “sexual indiscretion” with the wife of a PGA Tour pro.
Given the squeaky clean image of the PGA Tour and the vagueness of this addition (who was it, when did it happen?), people were more than eager to jump on this tidbit and speculate. And the rumor engine was further engaged by Robert Lusetich of Fox Sports, who stated that Johnson’s trysts entailed two PGA Tour wives, one of which broke up the marriage.
In this modern day of instant interaction, consumers rapidly played up theories of the identity of the two women. And rather quickly, they came to a consensus conclusion.
The first rumor to surface was that of the Tour wife whose marriage was allegedly broken up by her affair with Johnson. The name that bubbled up was Alli MacKenzie, the ex-wife of Tour pro Will MacKenzie. As with any rumor like this, some instantly believed the affair on exactly zero evidence. The rumor remains wholly speculative, as no proof has surfaced that a Dustin-Alli tryst occurred. Actually, speaking to the unimpeded and accelerating spread of this gossip, Alli MacKenzie already denied the unsubstantiated intel.
If that wasn’t enough, the name of the alleged second Tour wife came into the open: Erin Walker, the spouse of the current leader in the FedEx Cup standings. Again, her name was conjured up out of thin air. At this point, we’re getting into Salem Witch Trial territory, where any name listed by any single person seems to warrant further attention for some reason.
Considering Mrs. Walker is a fierce advocate of her husband, it’s rather unlikely that her name is correct. At the very least, she is no more likely than any other Tour wife, and she appears to be the victim of latent gossip grasping at straws.
In essence, the Dustin Johnson saga has revealed the dark underbelly of golf. Not only are titillating rumors alive in the sport’s inner circle, when they reach the light of day, consumers are desperate for more information.
The fans we point to on the affair rumors definitely don’t represent the whole membership, and are likely just the vocal minority. But clearly these controversies resonate with some viewers.
Maybe more “information” will arise in the coming days, maybe not. Whatever the case, the alleged Dustin Johnson suspension has already kicked up a firestorm in speculation. Just be careful what you choose to believe.