Johnson leads after curious day at Crooked Stick

Writing from Carmel, Indiana

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Happy 87th birthday to two-time Western Open champion Arnold Palmer!

Imagine a day of golf with a little bit of wind, more and more sunshine as the hours go by, and the opportunity to put the ball in your hand if it lands in the fairway.

Crazy-low scores, right?

That was the expectation on Saturday at Crooked Stick Golf Club, the Pete Dye design that may be diabolical when it’s dry but is gettable when wet.

Instead, on a day with reasonable hole locations, the low score was only 5-under-par 67, punched in by Adam Scott, Billy Horschel and Bill Haas.

What happened? For some, perhaps the pressure of knowing going low would help their cause for advancing to the Tour Championship in a fortnight and thus having a chance at the $10 million FedEx is awarding to the season champion.

Put Roberto Castro in that category. The co-leader with U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson entering the round, he muddled about all afternoon, scoring 2-over-par 74 including a pair of bogeys, one at the last.

For others? Well, golf is as much a mind game as anything. Johnson, for instance, made a late run with three straight birdies and four in his last five holes including a 17-footer at the last but could manage only a 4-under-par 68, and while he leads the BMW Championship by three at 18-under 198, the big hitter’s day could have been so much better. Say, a 64.

“On 3, I left my putt right in the middle; on 4 it was kinda right in the middle; same on 5 and 6,” Johnson said, ruing his inability to adjust to slightly slower greens on the front nine. “I just didn’t hit it hard enough.”

They dried out on the back, and suddenly he was pouring putts in again with the putter that, except in color, is a duplicate of the one Jason Day fancies. He rolled in a 12-footer on No. 14, came out a greenside bunker to a foot on the par-5 15th for a kick-in bird, dropped a sand wedge six feet from the cup on the 16th for three in a row, and then knocked in his longest putt of the day on the 18th after a nifty save on the par-3 17th.

After all that, Johnson has a three-stroke lead on Paul Casey (68 for 15-under 201), four on J.B. Holmes (68 for 14-under 202) and five on Castro, who is fortunate to hold fourth place by himself.

Casey, fifth in the standings – staying there means he can win the $10 million bonus by winning at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club– was sneaky good with a bogey-free round.

“It was tricky stuff,” Casey said. “Wind was swirling, a bit of rain the start out. It was all going on.”

Then the sun came out on the second hole, and Casey went to work with birdies on the fifth, ninth, 15th and 16th holes. He has more work to do to catch and pass Johnson, a big hitter on a big-hitter’s course.

“When he knocks 3-wood around the corner on holes like 14, about 340 yards, I mean – OK, as the crow flies it wasn’t that far, but goodness me, he’s a great athlete. If he continues to hit it like that, he’s going to be incredibly difficult to beat.”

But he and the trio of 67s were the exception. For once, lift, clean and place wasn’t a great advantage. The scoring average was 70.729, but few went crazy, or even moved much, on the day Ken Venturi long ago named Moving Day.

Holmes, who hit only 12 greens in regulation but saved par five of six times, said of his excursion, “No complaints out of me. I hit some good shots, actually some pretty good putts, and they just didn’t go in.”

In other words, don’t disturb the golf gods before the final round.

Even Scott, who woke up 10th, eight strokes behind, didn’t move much. His bogey-free 67 jumped him into a tie for fifth, but he’s still seven strokes in arrears.

“Nice way to finish, but it looks like I’ve got plenty of work to do tomorrow,” Scott said.

The affable Australian is a lock for advancing to the Tour Championship. His goal is to get into the top five. That’s different from clawing to get a seat at the table, as Atlanta native Castro is. Entering the final round, he’s 32nd, with Jason Kokrak (5-under 211) 31st and Rickie Fowler (1-over 217) 30th. Throw in 29th-place Daniel Berger (7-under 209) and the scramble to advance will likely come down to the last putt – made or missed.

“That’s why it’s fun,” Castro said. “The playoffs is fun for us, because there’s just tons of upside. A really good round puts me back in it.”

The course was soaked by two inches of rain Friday night and Saturday morning, thunderstorms raking the Indianapolis area. That reproved the saying of former Western Golf PR man Brian Fitzgerald: “If you want to end a drought, schedule the Western Open.”

It’s the fifth straight year the tournament has been socked by delays of one kind or another. The last year the BMW ran on schedule was 2011, the last year at Cog Hill.

The year before, in 2010, Johnson won the 107th Western Open – the third under the BMW name – at Cog, the key shot a great wedge on Dubsdread’s 17th hole in the final round. He began that day trailing Ryan Moore by one and ended up beating Casey – you can’t make stuff like that up – by a stroke.

History may repeat on Sunday.

Around Crooked Stick

Aside from Casey and Scott, bogey-free rounds were turned in by Jhonattan Vegas (70), and Si Woo Kim (71). ... The golf fan in Indianapolis is a hardy soul. Galleries have been asked to park in a different place each day, as the WGA juggles finding dry ground and paved lots. But they have turned out in big numbers each day, as was the case in 2012, where it poured more often than not. The gallery appeared to be about 25,000 strong, each one stepping gingerly around muddy patches in the rough. ... At one point on NBC’s telecast, a graphic noted Dustin Johnson was the U.S. Open champion. While a commercial was airing, Peter Jacobsen said to his colleagues, “We had to identify him because the (U.S. Open) ratings were so low.” Said Johnny Miller, who won it in 1973, “Still a nice one to win.” NBC lost the U.S. Open TV rights to Fox last year.

Tim Cronin

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