ATLANTA – When Dustin Johnson left East Lake last year, after finishing in last place, he was headed for an operating table. Now he’s leaving with his first FedExCup, one of the few accomplishments that was missing from a resume worthy of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Johnson is the champion of a season unlike any other. He did it with a month that reminded us of how easy he can make the game look.
But this season was anything but. Johnson had surgery on his left knee less than two weeks after last year’s TOUR Championship and didn’t play until the Presidents Cup in December. He made just four starts before the season was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. Even after his first win of the season, he shot back-to-back 80s at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide.
“I’ve never seen him that lost,” said Justin Thomas, who played with him that week.
Johnson is known for his ability to recover from setbacks and tough losses. Perhaps that is why he’s a fitting champion for the 2020 season.
After beating just one player at the Memorial and withdrawing from his next start because of a back injury, Johnson put on an impressive performance over his final four starts.
He closed the season with two wins and two runners-up. He was the 54-hole leader in all four events. Only two 64s – from Collin Morikawa at the PGA and Jon Rahm at the BMW Championship – and two of the season’s most incredible shots could stop Johnson during that closing stretch.
Johnson shot the second-lowest score in PGA TOUR history to win THE NORTHERN TRUST by 11, then claimed the TOUR Championship to finally win the FedExCup after qualifying for East Lake in each of the last 12 seasons.
“Being a FedExCup champion is something that I really wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to hold that trophy at the end of the day. It was something that I wanted to accomplish during my career.”
Johnson took a five-shot lead into the final round of the season, but his lead was down to two on the back nine. That’s when he executed a series of clutch shots that helped keep his closest competitors at bay.
First, he holed a 21-footer for par on 13. Then he laced a pair of 5-irons within 15 feet on both 14 and 15.
The latter came on East Lake’s scariest hole, an island-green par-3 that is longer than 230 yards. He drove into a fairway bunker on the next hole but hit a sand wedge onto the green to make par. He called that last shot the best of the bunch.
“Having a five-shot lead today, it’s something I needed to finish off,” he said.
Johnson made eight consecutive pars on the back nine before a birdie at the last hole. He shot 68 on Monday to win by three.
Johnson is now the unquestioned top player in the game right now. His three victories this season – he also won the Travelers Championship in June – tied Thomas for the most on TOUR this season. Johnson also was runner-up in the lone major of the season.
He is the favorite to be voted PGA TOUR Player of the Year by his peers. He would join an exclusive club if he is. Only Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth have won the FedExCup, finished the season atop the Official World Golf Ranking and been voted PGA TOUR Player of the Year in the same season.
Woods did it in 2007 and 2009. Spieth did in 2015, the same season he flirted with the Grand Slam.
What a difference a year makes.
Johnson could barely beat anyone by the end of last season because of his aching left knee. He finished ahead of just 12 players at the BMW Championship, then shot the highest score at East Lake by three shots.
How concerned was he when he left East Lake last year?
“I don’t even remember what happened last year,” he said Monday night. “That was a long time ago.”
It was. Johnson’s biggest asset, even bigger than his long drives, is his short memory. Even if he can’t recall, he was undoubtedly struggling last year a year ago. He didn’t finish better than 20th in his final eight starts of the season, his longest stretch without a top-10 since his rookie season.
After surgery and the season’s hiatus, he needed an MRI on his left knee after the first event back, the Charles Schwab Challenge. It revealed no damage, just a strain, but it was the latest in a line of frustrations for the former World No. 1.
Because of his injuries and struggles, Johnson had been overshadowed by workout buddy Brooks Koepka and the charisma and consistency of Rory McIlroy over the last two years.
Not anymore. His recent play is reminiscent of his three-event winning streak in 2017.
“Obviously I’m playing very well now,” Johnson said. “I feel like I can play better, though.”
That’s a scary thought.
ATLANTA — Dustin Johnson started with the lead, matched the low round Sunday at the TOUR Championship with a 6-under 64 and now is one round away from capturing the FedExCup.
Johnson missed only three fairways and putted for birdie on all but three holes. It led to a five-shot lead over Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele going into the Labor Day finish at East Lake.
“He’s showcased what he can do,” Schauffele said. “If he does what he normally does, it’s going to be almost impossible to catch him.”
No one was playing better going into the FedExCup finale and Johnson has shown no signs of slowing. He was at 19-under par, his fourth consecutive event holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
He converted one of those into an 11-shot victory two weeks ago at TPC Boston. He lost to a 65 by Collin Morikawa in the PGA Championship and to a 65-foot putt in a playoff by Jon Rahm last week at Olympia Fields.
Now only four players have a reasonable chance of catching him.
Schauffele, a big-game player who won the TOUR Championship three years ago, dropped only one shot on the front nine and finished with a 10-foot birdie putt for a 67 that puts him in the final group with Johnson.
Thomas missed a 16-inch par putt on the 10th hole that he careless went ot tap in, bounced back with a 25-foot birdie putt on the toughest par 3 at East Lake and make two more birdies coming for a 66.
They were at 14 under.
“DJ is clearly playing well. It wasn’t easy today,” Thomas said. “It’s still East Lake. But anything can happen around this course. You can shoot 63 or 64 and you can shoot 73 or 74 very easily. I just need to hope that tomorrow is my 63 or 64.”
Jon Rahm played bogey-free, but only a pair of birdies at the end made it feel like a better day with his 66. He was six shots behind, while Morikawa rallied with five birdies on the back nine to salvage a rough start for a 67. He was seven behind.
Daniel Berger also had a 64, but he made up no ground on Johnson was remained nine behind. Also at 10 under was Sungjae Im, who played in the final group with Johnson and must have wondered what hit him. Im shot 72.
The FedExCup has been on Johnson’s mind ever since he squandered a great chance to win it in 2016. He went into the final round that year tied for the lead and then couldn’t find a fairway, closing with a 73. He still had a chance to win the FedExCup when it was based on points. Only one player could have beaten him that day and it was Rory McIlroy, who holed a shot from the fairway on the 16th for eagle and then won in a three-way playoff.
McIlroy won’t be in the mix this year. He had to birdie the par-5 18th for a 70 and was 11 shots behind.
ATLANTA – The race between Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm for the FedExCup now has company.
It looked like Rahm and Johnson, just days after engaging in one of the most exciting finishes of the season, would be the main protagonists in the finale of the FedExCup Playoffs, as well.
That’s no longer the case. The TOUR Championship’s two front-runners struggled Saturday, allowing several more players to jump into contention with two rounds remaining in the season.
The top four players on the leaderboard after Friday’s first round – Johnson, Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas — all failed to break par Saturday.
Johnson birdied the last hole to shoot 70. Rahm’s 74 was the second-worst round of the day. Thomas and McIlroy both shot 1 over par. The top seven players on the leaderboard are separated by just four strokes.
Johnson is one ahead of Sungjae Im, whose 64 matched the low round of the week. Xander Schauffele continued his mastery of East Lake by shooting a 65 that got him within two shots of Johnson. Thomas, the 2017 FedExCup champion, is three back. Rahm, Collin Morikawa and Tyrrell Hatton are four back. Morikawa also shot 65 on Saturday, while Hatton shot 66.
With a win and runner-up in the previous two Playoffs events, it is fitting that Johnson is atop the TOUR Championship with two rounds remaining. A FedExCup is one of the last things missing from his Hall of Fame resume. He had a chance to make his path to his first FedExCup easier but made four birdies and four bogeys Saturday. He hit just two fairways.
“I was everywhere today. Obviously, all in all, I managed it pretty well,” Johnson said. “To shoot even around here not hitting my tee ball very good is a nice score, but I need to drive it better over the weekend.”
Until Saturday, the postseason was dominated by the top two players in the world. It started with Johnson’s runaway win at THE NORTHERN TRUST, which he won by 11 with the second-lowest score in PGA TOUR history.
Then Rahm and Johnson engaged in one of the most exciting finishes of the season at the BMW Championship. Johnson holed a 43-footer birdie to force extra holes at Olympia Fields, but Rahm won with a 66-footer of his own on the first extra hole.
They started the TOUR Championship atop the leaderboard thanks to the new staggered-start format, and they played well enough in Friday’s first round to pull away from the majority of the field.
They were tied at 13 under par after the first round at East Lake. Johnson, as the FedExCup leader, started the tournament at 10 under par. He shot 67 on Friday. Rahm shot 65 to close the two-shot gap between he and Johnson. Justin Thomas was two shots back after the first round and Rory McIlroy was four behind. They were the only players fewer than six shots back of the lead.
The emotional Spaniard and even-keeled South Carolinian have contrasting comportments on the course, but Rahm spoke earlier this week about their affinity for playing together. Their strong ball-striking and quick pace allow each other to get into a rhythm.
Rahm and Johnson were in the final group again Saturday, but they couldn’t keep up the pace.
Rahm shot 39 on the back nine, including a double at the par-3 15th after he hit his tee shot in the water.
“It’s one of those days I can’t escape here. That’s been my downfall pretty much every time I come,” Rahm said. “I can’t escape the one day where just nothing goes right, and I can’t really post a score.”
Johnson, who’s hit just 25% of his fairways this week, said he has struggled with every club off the tee, not just his driver. He also lost strokes on the greens Saturday thanks to a couple lip-outs.
This is the second year of the TOUR Championship’s staggered-start format. There were fears that giving the FedExCup leader a head start would result in runaways. That hasn’t been the case.
Last year, Brooks Koepka held a one-stroke lead over McIlroy and Thomas at the TOUR Championship’s halfway point. Schauffele was two strokes back. Koepka took a one-shot lead over McIlroy and Schauffele into the final round before McIlroy closed with a 66 to win his second FedExCup.
East Lake seems suited for this format because it allows players to go low while penalizing mistakes. Among the top seven names on the leaderboard, we saw everything from a 64 to a 74 on Saturday.
One-third of the rounds this week have been over par. But we’ve also seen seven rounds of 65 or lower.
Water comes into play on just a few holes at East Lake, but McIlroy hit it in the one lake that is an afterthought for the professionals. He chunked his second shot on 18 into the water that is only a problem for players the other 51 weeks a year. He bogeyed 18, as did Thomas. There was only one other bogey on that hole Saturday.
That bogey on 18 was the close of a “frustrating” day for Thomas, who’s trying to join McIlroy and Tiger Woods as the only two-time FedExCup champions. Thomas is second in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and third in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green this week but last in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting.
“Through two rounds I’m in a great place,” Thomas said, “so I just need to shrug it off.”
He isn’t the only one whose FedExCup chances are still alive. The stage is set for a strong finish to the season.
ATLANTA — Five days later, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm are still going at it. They dressed about the same Friday in the Tour Championship, matched birdies on five holes and wound up tied for the lead at East Lake.
That required Rahm getting the better of Johnson again.
Rahm, whose 65-foot birdie putt beat Johnson in a playoff at Olympia Fields last week, had a 5-under 65 that allowed him to make up the two-shot deficit at the start of the round that was awarded Johnson as the No. 1 seed in the FedEx Cup.
Johnson did his part with a 67, losing a three-shot edge early with back-to-back bogeys to end the front nine, and then missing a birdie putt from just over 4 feet on the final hole that would have given him the lead.
“The only birdie we didn’t share was mine on 16. Besides that, we birdied every single hole together, which is kind of unique, right?” Rahm said.
They were at 13-under par based on their starting positions in the FedEx Cup finale.
It was the second straight year under this format the FedEx Cup leader, who starts at 10 under with a two-shot lead, ended the opening round in a tie for the lead.
“Technically, it is a continuation,” Rahm said. “I kind of stole that tournament last week from him and he started with a two-shot lead. So hopefully, I can steal this one, as well.”
Justin Thomas was in the top spot a year ago and opened with a 70. He said later it felt awkward to start the tournament with a two-shot lead before hitting a shot. This year, he began at 7 under and shot a 66 to end the day two shots behind.
“I learned I would have rather been at 10 under than 7,” he said. “That being said, I feel like I’m in a good frame of mind. I’m in a good place mentally right now where I would like to feel like I would handle the golf course the same no matter what I was at. But I did a good job of just staying in my game today.”
The biggest move belonged to the player who might have had the least expectations. Rory McIlroy left Chicago on Sunday and spent three days with his newborn daughter, Poppy, only arriving in Atlanta on Thursday.
He finished with three straight birdies, getting up-and-down from a bunker short of the green on the par-5 18th, for a 64. He started seven shots behind and finished the opening round only four back.
“Even though I’ve had success here, I was coming in with no expectations. I didn’t touch a club for four days in between tournaments,” McIlroy said. “I come in here and golf was sort of the furthest thing from my mind. And sometimes that’s a good thing just to decompress and get away from it. Yeah, happy to have the start that I did.”
Abraham Ancer also had a 64 and cut three shots off his deficit, getting within six shots of Johnson and Rahm.
A a muggy afternoon with moderate wind that allowed for 17 players in the 30-man field to break par. The average score was 68.7. Johnson and Rahm spent most of the day playing out of the rough, which makes it harder to get it close.
“The key out here is driving,” Johnson said. “If you can drive it in the fairway, you can shoot a good score. The greens are so good, and the only way to control the golf ball coming into the greens is hitting out of the fairway. That’s the only thing I need to do a little better tomorrow.”
Johnson, Rahm and Thomas hold the key to so many hopes in the chase for the FedEx Cup and its $15 million prize. If they play well, it makes it difficult for anyone to make up too much ground on the players who happened to be the top three players in the world ranking.
Johnson and Rahm had golf buzzing last week with that wild finish at the BMW Championship, where Johnson holed a bending 45-foot birdie putt down the slope on the final hole to force a playoff, and Rahm followed by making a 65-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that turned out to be the winner.
Both wore navy trousers, a light blue shirt and a white cap. From a distance, it could be hard to tell them apart, especially with the birdies. Rahm holed one from 20 feet on the par-3 second hole, and Johnson matched him from 6 feet. Both got up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 sixth.
On the back nine, they matched birdies on the 12th, 13th and 15th holes — Rahm was outside him all three times.
“I feel like I was doing most of the pushing because I made pretty much every single birdie putt before he did,” Rahm said. “Props to him to be making them on top of me.”
The Spaniard finally caught him an 18-foot birdie putt on the 16th — Rahm’s fourth birdie in five holes — and both squandered birdie chances on the closing hole.