Johnson overpowers field for BMW title

Writing from Carmel, Indiana

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bulldozing the field doesn’t make for dramatic golf. That depends on birdies and bogeys being bounced back and forth among the leaders on a Sunday afternoon.

When the leader yields bogeys early, then goes on a birdie binge, the drama cannot be manufactured.

It is instead replaced by awe. That’s the only way to watch Dustin Johnson these days. The big hitter won the U.S. Open in June by overpowering Oakmont and outlasting the United States Golf Association’s rulesmakers. He captured the big payday at Firestone, another big hitter’s layout, in his next start.

Sunday, his final round 5-under-par 67 at Crooked Stick Golf Club allowed him a three-stroke victory over Paul Casey in the BMW Championship. His total of 265 wasn’t a tournament record – and the numbers go back to the first Western Open in 1899 all the way to this 113th edition – but his score in relation to par, a gaudy 23 under, is.

He was 15-under on the par-5s, the best known number by a winner. He’s won the old championship twice in the last seven playings, including his one-stroke victory over Casey on Cog Hill’s Dubsdread course in 2010. He’s not just No. 1 in the standings, but given his hot streak, the favorite going into the Tour Championship starting a week from Thursday at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

Johnson has power (first in driving distance this week, averaging 308.6 yards), accuracy (hitting 52 greens in regulation), and has found a putter he likes (only 103 putts this week, fewest by a Western Open / BMW winner since at least 2003, and only two three-putt greens, both on Sunday). What’s not to like?

“I’ve got a lot of confidence,” he said on the 18th green after a tap-in wrapped up his $1.53 million triumph. “This week, the putter really worked.”

Everything worked. Johnson was two strokes off leader Roberto Castro after 18 holes, tied with him through 36, and led Casey by three entering the final round.

Johnson led by four after a birdie at the first. A few minutes later, it looked like a battle, as Johnson bogeyed the second and third and Casey birdied them. It appeared that Casey, who lost a three-stroke last Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship, had a chance at his first PGA Tour win in seven years. But Johnson birdied four of the next five holes and began the runaway, cheered on by the gallery of about 28,000 on a sunny day.

It was sealed at the par-5 15th, which he eagled for the second time in three days moments after Casey did so. Johnson’s opponent had thrown his best punch and the big guy never felt it.

“That was the turning point,” Johnson said.

The duo parred in and Casey matched Johnson’s 67, as did Castro, who finished at 17-under 271, which would have won eight of the last 12 Western / BMWs. Instead, it got him third place, and five strokes ahead of the quintet of Ryan Palmer, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar, J.B. Holmes and Charl Schwartzel in fourth.

Schwartzel’s bogey-free 8-under 64 was the round of the day on the third straight day of lift, clean and place in fairways and closely-mown areas, one reason the scoreboard glowed red.

Johnson likely would have won no matter what the rules. The wedge game that he worked so hard over the winter on is the key to his big year.

“I know if I’m driving it well and hitting it in the fairway and get a wedge in my hand I’m going to have good looks at birdies,” Johnson said. “Today I hit a lot of great wedge shots. It started on the first hole.”

His 122-yard sand wedge stopped 4 feet 7 inches from the cup. He sank 21 and 7 footers on the fourth and fifth holes, dropped a 120-yard wedge 4 feet from the hole on the seventh, and sank a 5-footer for birdie on the eighth. He was 21-under with 10 holes to play. Casey would have been excused if he had melted away, but he hung in there, all the while knowing his odds were shrinking.

“I ran into a buzz saw,” Casey said. “That was something special the last two days, and I did everything I could. I’m holding my head up very high.”

Johnson’s not perfect. He missed five greens and only saved par three times. But when a guy makes three eagles and 24 birdies in 72 holes, there a margin for error.

If you think about it, Johnson could be the player of the year. Not that he thinks about it.

“There’s still a week to go,” he said. “My peers vote. You’ve got to ask them.”

They vote after the Tour Championship. If he wins that precinct, he’s a lock.

Jordan Spieth always likes the idea.

“He’s dealt with the expectations and won every season for nine seasons,” Spieth said. “That’s really special, but people still considered him someone who wasn’t a closer. You can’t get past two wins on the PGA Tour without being a closer.”

“There’s always something that can happen,” Johnson said, who could have three majors on his resume easy but for a grounded iron in a bunker at Whistling Straits and a wayward series of shots at Pebble Beach. “Believe me.”

That’s hard to argue with. Right now, Dustin Johnson is a hard man to beat.

Playoff permutations vex Fowler

It’s dramatic, especially if you can work a slide rule, these PGA Tour playoff machinations. Thanks to NBC and the on-course scoreboards, the biggest deal of the year about who may and who may not be in the 30-man Tour Championship comes about at the BMW, when the field vies for those spots. Not that the players know as they move about the course. Golf is hard enough with just addition. Add in algorithms, and it becomes impossible.

This year, the last man out was Rickie Fowler, following an even-par 72 for 1-over 289 and a 59th-place BMW finish. Then he became a spectator, and eventually saw J.B. Holmes par the 18th hole to eliminate him and get Charl Schwartzel in. Had J.B. Holmes birdied or bogeyed, Fowler would have been in. Instead, he’s 31st in a field of 30.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Fowler said three hours earlier. “I can’t, I’m not going to go heckle the ones that I need to miss. I want to see guys play well; they’re all my buddies, you never root bad on anyone.”

For Fowler, there’s also the Ryder Cup. It’s not likely Davis Love III saw anything from Fowler that will convince him to pick him tomorrow, when he announces three of his four selections. Fowler was optimistic.

“I’ve done basically everything I can do as far as schedule and playing,” Fowler said. “Obviously it would have been nice to play better to make the pick a lot easier on him.”

Then there’s Sergio Garcia. On Saturday, he made his putter a crooked stick by jabbing it against his bag after a putt the putter – certainly not him – missed. He shot 73-76 on the weekend, finished at 2-under 286, and was zonked, falling from 25th to 32nd. Brooks Koepka (30th to 35th) and Henrik Stenson (24th to 36th), who didn’t play because of injury, also fell out.

Johnson, Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Casey are the top five. If they win the Tour Championship, they also win the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus.

Around Crooked Stick

Defending champion and world No. 1 Jason Day withdrew with back pain after bending over for his tee on the ninth hole. He was 2 over for the day and 3 under overall. With no points this week, Day ended up ----- in the season standings. Bud Martin, his agent, says Day will get an MRI to see if there’s a long-term issue. ... Louis Oosthuizen birdied seven of his last 12 holes en route to a 6-under 66. ... The third consecutive day of lift, clean and place in fairways and closely-mown areas means seven of the eight rounds in two BMWs at Crooked Stick have been played in that fashion. Players were given a break in all four rounds in 2012 after downpours before and during the tournament. So are the 64 by Rory McIlroy in 2012 and the 63 by Dustin Johnson in Round 2, each considered course records, really course records? Some would say it belongs to Russ Cochran, whose 8-under 64 during the 2009 U.S. Senior Open was played under conventional conditions and on a layout measuring over 7,200 yards. ... NBC presented a stirring feature on an Evans Scholar who had been in a refugee camp in Africa during its telecast. ... Our bogey Saturday: The 2010 BMW that Johnson won at Cog Hill was the fourth under the motor company’s name, not the third. ... Next year’s BMW is back at Conway Farms for the third time in five years. Expect rain.

Tim Cronin

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