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


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


Johnson's hands-on 63 ties him with Castro

Writing from Carmel, Indiana

Friday, September 9, 2016

Tell a professional golfer he can put the ball in his hand, and his eyes light up.

So does the leader board, going tilt.

That was the case Friday at Crooked Stick Golf Club, where the second round of the BMW Championship was played in that fashion after nine-tenths of an inch of rain in Thursday’s twin downpours. The first round, completed in the morning, was hands off, strictly according to Hoyle, the Marquis of Queensberry and the Rules of Golf. The second round?

It was hands on. Lift, clean and place – or cheat, as many a golf wag has chirped over the decades – was in effect in fairways and closely-mown areas.

The result, this string of numbers: 63, 64, 65, 65, 66, 66, 67, 68, 68 and 68.

Those were the highlight rounds of the afternoon, during which the wind barely blew and the players took full advantage of both the conditions and the conditions of play.

The 63, which equates to 9 under the Stick’s par of 72, was authored by Dustin Johnson, who noted after the round that he scored an A in physics in high school.

That signal achievement was proffered by the United States Open champion after he was asked if the physics of his new putter, with weight centered behind the striking area, had to do with his success on the day. It’s likely the questioner meant the geometry of the putter, given that’s how engineers and designers talk, but we digress, as Johnson offered no other inside into his academic CV.

Regardless, he killed Crooked Stick and moved into a tie with Roberto Castro, the first round leader, who matched his opening 65 and thus is knotted with Johnson at 14-under 130 at the halfway point of this fandango, which a certain portion of golf scribes number as the 113th Western Open.

Castro and Johnson are three strokes ahead of Paul Casey, who sits at 11-under 133 after a 6-under 66. Neither he nor Castro or Johnson tallied an over-par hole on the day. It was birdies and pars for all three, with Johnson pouring in a pair of eagles on the par-5 ninth – where he holed out from a greenside bunker 45 feet from the cup – and 15th holes.

Johnson was seven strokes better than the field, and his 32-31 concoction probably could not have been better. Aside from three par saves, he ran a half-dozen long putts within tap-in distance for pars. Which brings us back to the new magic wand, the “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” like the one Jason Day uses.

“I played with him the last two weeks and saw him make enough putts I was like, I’ve got to try one at least,” Johnson said. “The ball’s coming out where I’m looking. That’s the only difference. I feel like I always read the greens very well. I’m just hitting a lot more putts on my line and they’re going in.”

For as long a hitter as he is, the old “drive for show, putt for dough” line fit on Friday. He was only 23rd in the 69-man field in driving, but needed only 25 putts, and his 22 on his 15 greens reached in regulation tied for third in the field. The 48 putts he’s taken this week is best in show.

In comparison, Castro’s 65 seemed ho-hum, never mind that he also took only 25 putts and was 4-of-4 in par saves. He actually made more putts from longer distances than Johnson, but didn’t have an eagle in his bag. He hopes to have a victory in it, as it’s his path to East Lake and the Tour Championship.

“There’s not a while lot of shuffling or points thoughts for me,” Castro said.

Neither did Ryan Palmer, who is tied for sixth at 7-under 137 after an 8-under 64 that at the time tied the existing course record, set by Rory McIlroy in the 2012 BMW. But his inward 30, with birdies on three of the last four holes, moved him up the leader board. He had opened with a 1-over 73 and was mired in 47th place. Now, he’s in the hunt, if seven strokes behind a pair of streaky players with 36 holes to go can be considered in.


Castro’s overnight lead held up


Castro did all the work in his 7-under-par 65 on Thursday, and remained the leader after the storm-delayed first round was completed on Friday morning. The big mover when play resumed was William McGirt, who played the last four holes in 4-under, including an eagle on the par-5 15th. He’d been 2-under at dusk Thursday.

Around Crooked Stick

There hasn’t been a Pete Dye sighting yet, and there may not be. The architect of the course who lives three doors down from the clubhouse along the 18th fairway is 90 and sadly, not getting around as well as he did even a year ago. More than a half-century ago, Dye was not only a WGA director, he had enough game to make match play in the Western Amateur, advancing to the semifinals in 1958 and 1959. ... The first round scoring average was 70.797. The par-5 15th was the easiest on the course, at 4.377 strokes, yielding four eagles, though the par-5 ninth (4.406) gave up five. With lift, clean and place in effect in the second round, the round’s average dipped to 70.029. The low four years ago, when all four rounds were played with what is sometimes discreetly called “preferred lies,” was 69.471 in the first round. The other three rounds averaged over 70, with the final round over 72.

Tim Cronin


Castro leading BMW, for the moment

Writing from Carmel, Indiana

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Some golfers allow their games to be disrupted when a weather delay hits in the middle of a round. Roberto Castro is not one of those golfers.

He played the first 12 holes in 5-under-par on Thursday, waited out a lightning and monsoon delay of 3 hours 33 minutes, then poured in three more birdies in a round sullied only by a bogey at the last.

He’ll take a 7-under par 65 under any circumstance, especially that one. It resulted in his being the leader with about half the field finished in the first round of the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club.

Castro is a stroke ahead of Brian Harman, whose bogey-free 66 included an eagle, and two ahead of U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnston and Jason Dufner, who are in at 5-under 65, and Jason Kirk, whose 5-under 31 places him in prime position to surpass Castro and the others when play resumes at 8 a.m. Eastern Time on Friday.

But Castro can’t sleep in. With more foul weather forecast, the PGA Tour will play the second stanza of this tournament – the 113th Western Open to traditionalists – off the first and 10th tee beginning at 10 a.m.

No biggie, Castro says.

“We have been dealing with this since we were kids playing junior golf,” Castro said. “I’m just glad to get the round in.”

Even the last hole, where he missed a 7-footer for par. But the eight birdies before, including a chip-in on the 14th, his second hole after the break, made up for it.

“It looked like it was going to miss on the left, and it fell in,” Castro said. “It was nice to kind of get back thinking about birdies.”

Conditions changed after 84 hundredths of an inch of rain fell, most of it in a 20-minute cloudburst. What had been fast fairways and greens hard to hold became cushions for tee shots and dartboards for approaches.

While Harman was in the day’s first group, and was 4-under through 13 holes at the break at 1:27 p.m. ET, even he was able to take advantage a bit, eagling the par-5 15th to finish the day 5-under on the par-5s, sterling for a shortish hitter.

“I haven’t played the par-5s very well (this year), so I’ve been working real hard on my fairway woods trying to hit a few more,” Harman allowed.

That worked, and it helped erase the memory of Monday’s final round in Boston, where he entered a contender, three strokes off the lead, and left tied for 24th after a closing 77.

“I got killed,” Harman said. “I was very disappointed by that. At the same time I played well enough to be in the tournament.”

He hasn’t won since the 2014 John Deere Classic – his only victory on the big tour – and came in ranked 57th in the standings. If he gets into the top 30 in points, he plays in Atlanta in a fortnight for the $10 million bonus. If he doesn’t, season over.

“I don’t know if my game plan changes at all,” Harman said, but admitted that with the course soft, and unlikely to dry out overnight, “you’re going to have to make a few more birdies now.”

That was the plan here four years ago, when four days of lift, clean and place yielded a 20-under-par victor in Rory McIlroy. Who, by the by, is 3-under through 10 holes.

Dufner had seven birdies and two bogeys en route to his 67, as did Johnson, albeit more spectacularly thanks to his length. He finished at the horn, just before 8 p.m. ET.

“It saves a couple of hours sleep to come back and have to finish one hole,” Johnson said.

He bogeyed it, but Dufner birdied Nos. 15, 16 and 18 to finish with a flourish.

“I had a good day going,” Dufner said.

Along with Kirk, the players to watch Friday morning – and Golf Channel coverage starts at 8 a.m. Central Time – are Hideki Matsuyama, 4-under through 12 holes, and Paul Casey and Adam Scott, both 4-under through 10 holes, though Scott bogeyed the 10th after finishing the front nine birdie-eagle for a saucy 31.

To this point, 45 players are under par and another five are at par. In other words, as was the case four years ago here, it’s a birdiefest, and given the conditions, that will continue. 

Around Crooked Stick

Thirty-six players are yet to finish, with 33 in the house. ... Defending champion and world No. 1 Jason Day fired a 1-over-par 73, but under an assumed name. He was announced on the first tee as “Jordan Day,” but laughed and then the announcer corrected himself. ... The partial scoring average for the first round is 71.182 strokes. Four years ago, under lift, clean and place, it was 69.471.

Tim Cronin


Illini's Small earns six-year extension 

Writing from Carmel, Indiana

Thursday, September 8, 2016

It’s good to be Mike Small these days.

If you’re him, you’re coming off a victory in the Illinois PGA Championship, your Fighting Illini golf team is once again expected to be a power on the college circuit, and Thursday, you received a six-year extension that carries through the 2021-22 season that is worth more than $2 million over that time span.

In other words, about $340,000 annually.

Small has the skins on the wall. The Illini have averaged out as the No. 1 men’s team in the country the last seven years, led everyone in making the match-play portion of the NCAA Tournament five times since the format was created, and have had a pair of individual NCAA winners in Scott Langley and Thomas Pieters to go with seven Big Ten team titles.

Oh, and the facilities have improved as well.

“Nine years ago, we were practicing in the basement of Huff Gym,” Small recalled Thursday when word came that the university’s board had approved the extension Small and athletic director Josh Whitman had negotiated.

Last spring, the athletic department put the finishing touches on an Augusta National-style outdoor practice center to go with the indoor center opened a few years earlier. It’s the best facility in the Big Ten. Now, Small has a deal to match it.

“Quite simply, Mike Small is the finest collegiate golf coach in the country,” Whitman said in a release from the school. “His record speaks for itself, in the success of his student-athletes both during and after their time at Illinois. He has defied the odds and built the Fighting Illini golf program into one of the nation's elite. This contract demonstrates our mutual commitment to Mike spending the rest of his career leading the men's golf program at Illinois.”

Small, 50, took over the program in the summer of 2000.

“I've had contracts before, but this is a bold positive statement from the University of Illinois, and I'm very excited by it,” Small said.

He had been tempted twice in the recent past, when Arizona and then Kansas came calling. In both cases, he turned down attractive offers to stay at his alma mater. There is a $600,000 buyout in the deal in case he leaves, but that’s even more unlikely now compared to then.

“It's nice the University committed to us and they appreciate the championships we have won, and what we have accomplished,” Small said. “We have great facilities and I'm where I want to be the rest of my career.”

Tim Cronin


Look for a Grill Room column on the program Small has built in the next digital issue of Illinois Golfer, out soon.