By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor
EDISON, N.J. — Dustin Johnson was in a hurry. He had a plane to catch, and with Hurricane Irene bearing down on the area there was no time to wait. He answered one last question about his victory on Saturday at The Barclays, then he sprung out of his chair and flew out the door and into a waiting car, leaving the big crystal trophy in his wake. He’ll get it another time.
It was a most unusual exit to a most unusual day in a most unusual week.
But there’s really nothing unusual about Dustin Johnson winning a PGA TOUR event. He hits it farther than most players, his iron play is superb, and when he avoids trouble and gets his putter going — as he did this week at Plainfield Country Club — he’s pretty much unbeatable.
Or, as Matt Kuchar described it, “Guys like Dustin Johnson can make golf seem really easy.”
Such was the case this week, especially on Saturday when he outdueled Kuchar in what turned out to be a two-man sprint to the finish. Johnson shot a 6-under 65 to finish at 19 under and overtake the defending Barclays champ by two strokes in this weather-shortened first leg of the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup.
Johnson now moves into first place in FedExCup points. Perhaps more alarming to the 99 other players still left in the Playoffs, the 27-year-old has his mojo back. In a season in which several other 20-somethings have made their impact, Johnson — already a four-time winner on TOUR coming into the year — had failed to return to the winner’s circle. Until now.
“I was never concerned,” Johnson said about his year, which includes top-10 finishes at five other events, including a tie for second at the British Open. “More frustrated than anything because I felt like I had played some really good golf this year. Just have not been able to quite get it done.”
For a while, it appeared the tournament itself wouldn’t quite get done, not with Hurricane Irene headed toward the tri-state area. Tournament officials made the prudent move of shortening the event to 54 holes and moving up the tee times on Saturday to avoid an ominous forecast. Although it rained at times Saturday, it was not enough to disrupt play.
Certainly it was not enough to slow down the onslaught at Plainfield. Preferred lies were in effect all three days, and soft greens on a short course allowed the players to fire at pins. Of the 72 players who made the cut, just seven failed to break par in the third round.
Kuchar entered the day with a one-shot lead over Johnson and Vijay Singh, but you knew the winners were not going to back up. Brandt Snedeker, starting eight shots off the pace, figured his only real hope was to shoot a TOUR-record tying 59. He nearly pulled it off, settling for a career-low tying 61 to finish solo third.
As it turned out, not even a 59 would’ve been good enough. You knew the leaders were not going to come back to the field, and as it turned it, Johnson and Kuchar sizzled on the front side – Johnson shooting a 6-under 29, thanks in large part to holing out a bunker shot for eagle at the par-4 second, and Kuchar a 4-under 31.
From then on, it was their tournament to figure out.
“Seemed like after that front side, it was kind of Dustin and I,” Kuchar said.
Kuchar pulled even with Johnson when he rolled in a birdie putt from inside 17 feet at the par-3 11th. At that point, he had played 33 consecutive holes without a bogey.
Then he found trouble.
After his tee shot at the par-5 12th left him with a poor lie, his ball above his feet, he opted to lay up. But his third shot from 97 yards landed on the fringe of the green. He decided to putt from there and ran it seven feet past, then missed the comebacker, ending his bogey-free streak.
Another bogey on the ensuing par-4 13th when he failed to save par from just off the green proved to be the difference.
“For me, that just seems very uncharacteristic to have those 3-putts,” said Kuchar, who ranks 11th on TOUR in 3-putt avoidance. “I felt like I was just giving shots away.”
Meanwhile, Johnson wasn’t giving anything away. After his spectacular front nine, he produced nine consecutive pars, with all nine of his made putts from inside 3-1/2 feet. His gameplan of red-hot front nine/avoid trouble back nine proved to be the winning formula. For the week, Johnson was 17 under on the front side — twice he shot 29 — and just 2 under on the back.
“I wish we could have just kept playing the front nine,” he said with a smile. “I would have done really well this week.”
He would’ve done really well — or at least much better — all year had he been able to putt like he did at Plainfield. Coming into this week, Johnson ranked 163rd in strokes gained-putting. This week, he was 18th in the field, picking up nearly 2-1/2 strokes on the field with his putter.
Johnson said he’s been working hard to improve his putting but had not seen any payoff before The Barclays. His main focus has been to simply get his putts properly started on the right line.
“You can’t control if the ball goes in,” he said, “but you can control where you start it. I’ve just been working on starting it where I’m looking.”
Now he’s started the Playoffs with a win, and he’s looking at three more events before he can raise the FedExCup. You have to like his chances. He tied for fourth at the Deutsche Bank Championship two years ago. He won the BMW Championship last year.
He’ll still have to navigate the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. East Lake hasn’t been very kind to him in his two trips there, but if he has the putter figured out it may not matter.
And if he wins at East Lake and claims the FedExCup crown? Hopefully he’ll be able to enjoy the win a little longer instead of having to outrun a hurricane.