PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Dustin Johnson probably is not a Led Zeppelin fan, although I don’t know that for a fact.
It’s just that “Stairway to Heaven,” the band’s iconic anthem, has some lyrics which Johnson might find objectionable.
One lyric, in particular. One word, mainly: Stairway.
Johnson was playing the best golf of his life, verging on dominance, when he slipped on a staircase at his Augusta rental home just before the 2017 Masters and had to withdraw. He thinks he has only recently gotten his swing close to where it was back then – he won the WGC Mexico with a nearly flawless week. So, thanks a lot, stairway, for the two-year detour.
He came up short Sunday in a thrilling finale at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass as he was one of a posse of players who had a chance to win. Johnson’s brother, Austin, who is also Johnson’s caddie, was carrying an armful of gear up some steps Sunday night after the tournament and slipped, breaking a bone in his left hand. Austin is sporting a cast.
“He had a bit of a run-in with a pair of stairs, kind of like I did,” Dustin Johnson said. “So those stairs, man,” he added, pausing just slightly, “they'll get ya.”
He laughed, but it wasn’t a funny-ha-ha laugh but more of a rueful that-figures laugh. So, go ahead and make your jokes.
“Stairway to Heaven”? More like Stairway to the Emergency Room. It was a small step for a man, a giant thud for golf-kind.
We’ve got two new competitors for “Dancing With the Stairs.” I guess Austin was cli-i-mbing the stairway to … Dustin.
Doug Ferguson, golf writer for the Associated Press, tweeted the ironic fall best: “Can’t make this up: Stairs 2, Johnsons 0.”
That’s enough about bad luck. It is the Valspar Championship’s good luck that Johnson is here at Innisbrook Resort. He hasn’t played this tournament since 2010, and his return is due to the PGA Tour’s “strength of field” rule.
No, it’s not one of golf’s new rules that have been the subject of debate. This is a Tour rule that has been around since 2016. It states that players who don’t play 25 events in a season must respond the following season by adding a tournament that they haven’t played in the past four years. It’s a way to spread the wealth – or strengthen tournament fields – by enticing the top players to play more often.
Johnson played only 20 tournaments in the 2017-18 season. So, he owed the PGA Tour an appearance at an event that he doesn’t regularly play. Johnson chose the Valspar Championship.
“I had a few to pick one, and this fit the best in my schedule,” Johnson said. “Of the courses I had to choose from, I like this [Copperhead Course] the best, if you’re playing well. The golf course is tough, but I feel like my game is in good form, so it’s a good course for me.”
Johnson nearly avoided the Valspar on a technicality. When he won in Mexico, it was the 20th victory of his career. Twenty is the threshold to become a PGA Tour life member, and the strength-of-field rule doesn’t apply to life members, or to players 45 or older. So, Johnson briefly thought that he wouldn’t have to add a tournament.
However, a player also has to have put in 15 seasons on the PGA Tour to reach life-member status. Johnson’s first year on Tour was 2008. He didn’t learn about the 15-year minimum until the Sunday night after he had won in Mexico.
“Somebody told me afterwards,” Johnson said with a chagrined look. “It’s fine; it’s not a big deal. The only thing that I wasn't too fond of was I had to add another tournament to my schedule. Luckily enough, it's Valspar.”
The strength-of-field rule has been a good innovation, if occasionally inconvenient for some.
Some suggested calling it the Jordan Spieth Rule last year after Spieth failed to reach 25 starts in the 2016-17 season and then failed to add an event that he hadn’t played or play 25 events again in 2017-18. He came up one tournament short last year when he failed to advance through the FedEx Cup playoffs to the Tour Championship.
Spieth atoned in the fall by adding two events that he had never played: the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas and the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico.
Ian Poulter took a similar approach as Spieth but came up with a more creative way to make up for his scheduling lapse. Poulter, like Spieth, added two tournaments that he hadn’t played. One was the winners-only tournament at Kapalua in Hawaii. In addition, Poulter served as host for eight invited guests to play golf at his home course in Florida. He had lunch with the group and gave them a tour of his house, his luxury-car collection and his Ryder Cup memorabilia.
Paul Casey, Valspar’s defending champion and a member of last year’s European Ryder Cup team, also came up short of 25 events last year. His Valspar victory got him into the Tournament of Champions, which counted as an event he hadn’t played in the previous four years. So that tournament served as a two-fer for him.
“Yeah, that was a real hard one to come to terms with,” he said jokingly. “I do like the rule. We have seen events benefit from it. Valspar has to be ecstatic that Dustin is here this week. It adds more world-ranking points. It’s going to bring out more fans. Don’t punish guys by stopping them from playing; punish by making them play. It’s the best thing ever.”
In 2017, the rule played a factor in Spieth and Rory McIlroy adding the Travelers Championship to their schedules right after the U.S. Open. Both players said they were looking to add a tournament, anyway. McIlroy tied for 17th and liked it so much that he returned last year. Spieth, playing in Hartford for the first time, famously holed a playoff bunker shot to win the title and did a stutter-step body-bump with caddie Michael Greller to celebrate, easily the most-shown highlight of the year. Spieth returned to play in 2018, too.
“The rule has already paid some tournaments back,” Casey said.
It seems to be a win-win. Valspar wins because the Johnson brothers are here this week. I just hope they booked first-floor hotel rooms.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle