Austin Johnson ’13 has one very cool job.
He gets to travel the world, often on a private jet, makes a very nice living and has a front-row seat to some of the biggest sporting events going.
“And I didn’t even have to submit a résumé,” he says with a wry smile.
Johnson’s job is caddying for his older brother, Dustin, one of the world’s best golfers. Caddying is serious business these days, and Austin is a big reason Dustin
has spent 135 weeks ranked as the world’s No. 1 player over the last five years. Gone are the days where caddies just had to “show up, shut up and keep up.” With huge purses at stake in professional golf today, as well as history in the major championships, caddies are an integral part of the team backing highly skilled athletes like Dustin.
As his brother, Austin also brings a host of positive intangibles that a non-sibling can’t, and their strong bond has led to some great results. In just the second tournament with Austin on the bag, Dustin won a World Golf Championship in Shanghai in the fall of 2013, breaking the tournament scoring record. They have won 16 more times since then, including two major championships: the 2016 U.S. Open and the 2020 Masters.
Dustin Johnson, right, checks the wind with his brother and caddie Austin Johnson on the fourth tee during the final round of the Masters golf tournament in 2020. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
“It’s unbelievable having my brother on the bag,” Dustin has said. “I just love experiencing all these moments with him. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
In addition to lugging Dustin’s 45-pound tour bag each round (which equates to about 5 miles of walking), Austin also supplies a lot of technical and mental support. A basketball player at Charleston Southern University (CSU) before transferring to the College of Charleston, Austin is a very good golfer himself and helps Dustin navigate his way around hazard-laden courses. Judging the wind speed and direction, he helps calculates shot distances while consulting notes in his yardage book from previous rounds detailing the results of previous shots. Unlike most caddies, he also helps Dustin read putts on the greens using a complicated system called Aimpoint, which involves slope grades, green speeds and arm-and-finger extensions to estimate the breaks with his dominant eye.
“He’s a great caddie,” says Dustin’s longtime coach, Allen Terrell, who has known the two since he recruited Dustin to play at Coastal Carolina University in 2006. “Austin’s career is completely intertwined with Dustin’s success, and they have a great rapport. That’s a pretty cool situation for a caddie-player relationship. I was super excited when Dustin decided to put A.J. on the bag.”
It’s almost hard to tell them apart they’re so alike. They’re both 6-foot-4-inch gym rats who are very easygoing and like to rib one another. They also live right near each other in Jupiter, Florida. But for all their similarities, there are some differences between D.J. and A.J., as they’re known to close friends and family.
“A.J. is a little more organized and outgoing than D.J.,” says Terrell. “But they’re both very hard workers. When I work with Dustin, A.J. doesn’t have to be there – but he is, so he can see what we’re working on and remind him of things.”
Austin can also deliver a well-timed “Earth to Dustin” reality check. On the final hole of the 2020 Masters, Dustin was getting ready to hit his approach into the green when he turned to Austin and asked, “How do we stand?”
“What do you mean?” asked a confused Austin.
“In the tournament, how do we stand?”
Austin shot him a look like he was crazy. “We’ve got a five-shot lead. I could get Mativa home from here,” he said, referring to a high-handicap buddy of theirs.
“He gets in these zones,” explains Austin. “He said he never looked at a scoreboard the entire day, and I don’t know how that’s possible because Augusta [National Golf Club] has got these massive scoreboards. I couldn’t not look at them. I was studying every single name up there to see what they did on every hole. But his tunnel focus is impressive. He just blocks everything else out and just focuses on what he’s got to do. It is a gift.”
Drops of Jupiter
Austin Johnson with his wife Sam Maddox Johnson ’15
On a warm spring day, Austin and his wife, Samantha “Sam” Maddox Johnson ’15, are sitting at the kitchen table inside the air-conditioned comfort of their new five-bedroom, island-style home in a new development in Jupiter, the manicured East Coast enclave that is home to dozens of professional golfers. They just moved in earlier in the year, so they haven’t finished decorating it, but some of Austin’s most prized possessions are hung: framed collections of 18th-hole pin flags, caddie bibs and photos from tournaments Dustin has won around the world.
“To: A.J.,” Dustin wrote on the flag from their win at the 2015 World Golf Championship in Miami. “Best Caddie and Bro anyone could ask for. Love you!”
There’s also a framed collage of photos of Sam from her days playing tennis at the College. Between the new home, her job selling real estate and traveling to the occasional tournament with Austin, Sam hasn’t played much tennis of late, but her talent earned a full ride to CofC, where she played singles all four years, earning First Team All-CAA honors her senior year and a degree in accounting. The daughter of two student-athletes (tennis and football) at the University of Kentucky, Sam was the No. 1-ranked player in girls’ 18 & under division in Kentucky before coming to CofC for its beauty and beachside location.
In a scene worthy of a rom-com, the couple met during her freshman year in 2011 when a friend of Austin’s took Sam out on a dinner date and ran into credit card trouble upon paying. Fortunately, Austin lived next door, and when the friend and Sam returned with Austin’s card, sparks flew.
“He brings out so much good in me,” she says. “He’s the kindest guy I’ve ever met, and he was always consistent in my life. I was gone a lot with the team, but he would always be there for me. Even when I pushed back hard against him, he never gave up.”
Austin couldn’t believe how mature she was for a 19-year-old. “Her apartment was always clean,” he says. “That’s not typical for a freshman in college. She’s a very hard worker, very loyal and trustworthy. Plus, she’s an athlete. We get to spend a lot of time together in the off weeks [from the tour], but we’ll go three weeks without seeing each other, so to have someone who understands that lifestyle and can help you cope on those long, lonely weeks, it’s huge.”
Sam used to travel with “the boys” a fair amount, but she’s more selective now. When asked what tournaments she still likes to go to, Austin interjects.
“Hawaii, Bahamas, L.A.,” he says. “Funny, she doesn’t go to Memphis or Akron.”
Sam laughs and nods her head. “Those are definitely my favorites,” she says. “I think the boys get sick of me on the road, and it’s a lot of walking. I’ve also started working more, so I can’t be out there like I used to be.”
Due to his lack of experience, some of the other caddies on the PGA Tour were a little standoffish when Austin first started caddying for his brother in 2013, but it didn’t take long for him to rise in the ranks, thanks to his work ethic and love of sports. His peers voted him Caddie of the Year in 2016.
“I love competing, being out there with a chance to win on Sunday,” he says, admitting he can get nervous in the heat of competition. “All I’m doing is getting nervous! If I were hitting the shot, I think I’d be more calm. I’d have something else to do. I’m just sitting there thinking, Don’t hit it here, don’t hit it there.”
He’s grateful for all the perks – flying on private jets, traveling the world, scuba diving in the Red Sea, getting to play golf with the likes of Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky (Dustin’s father-in-law) – but there are some less-than-Instagrammable moments out there, too.
“I don’t post when I’m waking up at 5 a.m., it’s 40 degrees, I’ve got four layers on and I’m shivering,” he says. “But, yeah, going to Maui and staying at the Ritz Carlton is pretty great. I’m spoiled as a caddie. A lot of the other guys are splitting rental cars and hotel rooms and driving through the night.”
He and Dustin have come a long way from tiny Irmo, South Carolina, just outside Columbia, that’s for sure.
From Hooper to Looper
The youngest of three siblings whose parents divorced at an early age, Austin was very close to his maternal grandfather, Art Whisnant, a standout basketball player at the University of South Carolina and teammate of Bobby Cremins, the CofC men’s basketball coach from 2006 to 2012. Whisnant had a buddy back home in Hickory, North Carolina, who owned a sock factory and would send him boxes of socks, which Austin would sell at flea markets. “He would drop me off in the morning, and when he came back, there wouldn’t be a sock left,” recalls Austin. “He was a wheeler-dealer who taught me so much about life and sports.”
Austin’s dad, Scott, was a golf pro at a local club and now runs a bowling alley in Irmo, where daughter Laurie pitches in when she can pull herself away from raising four young children. Mom Kandee is close to retiring and moving down to Jupiter after a career as a workers’ compensation caseworker for the state.
Like his late grandfather, Austin was a good basketball player in high school, and after graduating in 2005, he went on to play at a prep school in North Carolina before getting recruited by CSU. His coach there has described him as a “hard-nosed player” who dove for a lot of loose balls during games.
“I wasn’t the fastest or most athletic,” says Austin. “I had to make up for it somehow, so I had hustle and heart. I wasn’t afraid to get on the floor.”
After playing at CSU from 2007 to 2010, Austin transferred to CofC but had no desire to play hoops, despite Cremins offering him a spot.
“I was just at a point where I just wanted to do my schoolwork, finish school and figure out what I want to do in life because basketball wasn’t it,” says Austin, who majored in business. “Dustin was doing well on tour, so I didn’t really need the scholarship money anymore. I enjoyed being a normal college student and living in downtown Charleston.”
Soon after graduating, Austin joined Dustin out on tour. Dustin’s regular caddie couldn’t make a trip all the way to Perth, Australia, for a tournament, and the cost of a flight was too much to fly him to the next one in Shanghai, so Austin stayed on the bag and has remained there ever since their record-setting win.
When they’re not out on the road, Dustin stays sharp by playing golf with Austin at one of the many great courses in the Jupiter area, including Jordan’s private retreat, Grove XXIII, where the basketball legend usually has a high-stakes game going on. There are typically six to eight players in one group, everyone in their own cart blasting their own music, along with five caddies on scooters to keep up with the fast pace of play.
“There’s a lot going on, but it’s fun to tee it up with M.J. and talk some trash with him,” says Austin. “He’s the best. I grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, so it’s tough to beat.”
Nothing may top winning the Masters, however. The Johnson brothers are the third family caddie team to win the tournament, joining Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus II in 1986 and Patrick Reed and brother-in-law Kessler Karain in 2018.
“We grew up a little over an hour outside of Augusta, so we always just wanted to go to Augusta and just see the place,” says Austin, admitting, “I never even dreamt of caddying for Dustin and winning a green jacket growing up. We’ve been lucky to win numerous golf tournaments, but they don’t really compare to winning the Masters.”
Although Dustin has slipped a little in the world rankings over the last season or two, they don’t plan on calling it quits anytime soon. “Hopefully, we have a good run,” says Austin, “but when he hangs it up, I hang it up, and we just enjoy life.”