Dustin Johnson has always been one of the most physically gifted golfers since he joined the PGA Tour in 2007. Yet, he endured a series of near-misses at big events that put him in the dreaded “best players to never win a major” conversation. That ended in 2016, when he finally got the monkey off his back with a three-shot win at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
The target is now back on DJ.
On Tuesday, Johnson was the most surprising, and highest-profile, player among the 42 entries for the LIV Golf Invitational Series’ first event at London’s Centurion Club, due to start June 9. Johnson had said in February he was “fully committed to the PGA Tour.”
“Dustin has been contemplating the opportunity off and on for the past couple of years. Ultimately, he decided it was in his and his family’s best interest to pursue it,” David Winkle, Johnson’s manager at Hambric Sports, told The Associated Press in a text message.
Golf has been very good to Johnson, who has racked up 24 PGA Tour wins, including a second major at the 2020 Masters. His $74 million in Tour prize money ranks third all time, behind Tiger Woods ($121 million) and Phil Mickelson ($95 million). He’s pocketed another $27 million in FedEx Cup bonus checks, third behind Rory McIlroy ($32 million) and Woods ($29 million).
In addition to his prize money and bonuses, Johnson has earned more than $100 million off the course from endorsements and appearances fees through the end of 2021, according to Sportico estimates.
Johnson ranked third behind Woods and Mickelson in Sportico’s look at the highest-paid golfers, with $40.8 million, based on earnings between June 2020 and May 2021. It included $16 million off the course from appearances and sponsors TaylorMade, Adidas, Hublot, BodyArmor, RBC and Perfect Practice. It was a career-high haul, as the Masters win and No. 1 ranking triggered lucrative bonuses. He also captured the FedEx Cup and its $15 million bonus. In addition, he banked a seven-figure appearance fee for an event in Saudi Arabia (the chart above measures calendar year earnings).
RBC was the first sponsor to cut ties with the 37-year-old after the LIV news broke. “As a result of the decisions made by professional golfers Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell to play the LIV Golf Invitational Series opener, RBC is terminating its sponsorship agreement with both players,” the banking giant said in a statement. “We wish them well in their future endeavours.”
Johnson’s LIV commitment stung RBC, because it meant he could not participate in the RBC Canadian Open during the same week. Johnson became a sponsor for the Canadian firm in 2018 and won the event the same year. He was being used to market the 2022 tournament. Johnson’s remaining sponsors either did not reply or would not comment on Sportico’s questions about their future partnerships with the golfer.
DJ’s sponsor troubles come three months after Phil Mickelson’s remarks about the Saudi-backed golf series cost him deals with Amstel Light, KPMG and Workday. Mickelson was not included in the original LIV event entries but could still be added to the field.
The appeal of the LIV series is clear: cash, and lots of it. The three-day tournaments have $25 million purses and $4 million for the winners—both more than double most PGA Tour events. That might be an appetizer for Johnson. Golf scribe James Corrigan of The Telegraph reports Johnson was paid $125 million (£100 million) to join the LIV series.
Johnson has held the No. 1 ranking for 135 weeks during his career—only Woods and the face of the LIV Series, Greg Norman, have been on top more often. Johnson is currently ranked 13th and has not won an event since November 2020. But he picked up a big win off the course late last year when Coca-Cola bought BodyArmor in an $8 billion deal. Johnson joined the sports drink as an early brand ambassador in 2016 and received an equity stake as part of his agreement. His shares were worth roughly $6 million after the Coca-Cola deal, according to one source who was not authorized to discuss publicly. Only a handful of BodyArmor athletes, like James Harden, Mike Trout and Buster Posey, earned more.
Golfers can earn significant money off the course, long after they are competitive. “Golfers have a very long shelf life,” Bob Dorfman, a creative director at Pinnacle Advertising, said in a phone interview. “Plus, they have appeal to a higher income demographic and to more luxury brands.”
Arnold Palmer still earned more than $30 million a year from endorsements and royalties when he died in 2016 at 87 years old. Woods has massive appeal, even as his on-course career winds down, and the same held true for Mickelson before his “Saudis are scary mother-----s to get involved with” comments. Johnson is not Woods or Palmer, but former No. 1s with Masters and U.S. Open trophies on the mantle are valuable commodities in the corporate world.
“It's a tremendous amount of money, and politics takes a backseat for some of these golfers and they feel it's worth the sponsor risk,” Dorfman said. “I guess money wins over torture.”