Spaniard sinks 66-footer on 1st playoff hole to stun Dustin Johnson at a U.S. Open-like Olympia Fields, ratcheting up the PGA Tour’s playoff drama
For those of you who don’t have it committed to memory, which is a distinct possibility, Justin Thomas won the second leg of last year’s FedEx Cup playoffs with a score of 25 under par. It was an utterly ridiculous number, mainly because it was compiled at Medinah, the venerable Chicago venue with enough meat on its bones to have hosted three U.S. Opens.
The BMW Championship returned to the Windy City last week, this time at Olympia Fields, another fine club with major championships in its blood. Chicagoans can argue the matter all night, but it’s probably fair to say that Medinah has the sturdier reputation of the two, although aficionados likely will tell you that the best layouts in town are at Chicago Golf Club and Butler National.
A week after battering TPC Boston and winning the first postseason tilt by 11, Dustin Johnson looked nothing short of bulletproof with 14 holes to play at Olympia Fields. He opened birdie-birdie-par-birdie, making an impenetrable golf course look vulnerable. His three-shot lead on such a difficult test felt more like six, but Johnson has a career-long habit of not completing what he started, and he took his foot off the gas at the wrong time Sunday.
It led to one of the most stunning finishes you’ll ever see, a battle headlined by the two men atop the Official World Golf Ranking. Johnson holed a 43-foot double breaker on the 18th – his first birdie since the torrid start – to force a sudden-death session with Jon Rahm, whose Sunday 64 was the best round all week. Upon returning to the par-4 closer, Rahm responded by dunking a 66-footer for the win, his second since the June restart and fifth PGA Tour triumph overall (scores).
And to think that those late fireworks never would have occurred if the broad-shouldered Spaniard hadn’t incurred a one-stroke penalty Saturday for lifting his ball on the fourth green before marking it. Heads or tails? Rahm clearly was thinking with the latter. That said, he picked up some pretty good coin for his triumph, collecting $1.71 million and grabbing some prime real estate on the eve of the FedEx Cup playoff finale.
Rahm leapt into second place in the standings. He trails only Johnson, who backed up his 30-under slaughter in New England with unforeseen grit in major-championship conditions. Some guys are tough-course technicians. Others are birdie machines. Even without a follow-up victory, Johnson reminded us yet again just how wondrously talented he is.
The two men wrapped up regulation at 4 under. Consider that when Jim Furyk won the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, he bettered that total by four. Vijay Singh fired a 29 on the back nine that Friday, at which point you could hear ample grumbling as to whether what the old ballyard offered was sufficient enough to challenge the game’s best.
Seventeen years later, we got a response. Take that, Medinah.
It all sets up the end of the regular season this week in Atlanta, where the lack of spectators won’t seem so uncommon. Tour Championship galleries haven’t exactly provided the type of atmosphere worthy of a $15 million grand prize over the years, although weekend crowds were sizable when Tiger Woods capped his comeback with a victory at East Lake in 2018.
Last year’s affair was arguably the best of the FedEx Cup era. It featured the debut of a weighted scoring system that proved far less complicated and a lot more viewer-friendly than the bizarre arithmetic used previously, and it didn’t hurt that Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele spent all of Sunday tussling over golf’s ultimate pot of gold.
That 25-under destruction of Medinah earned Thomas the top spot heading into Atlanta. He unseated Koepka, who had presided atop the standings all summer but slipped to third behind McIlroy, who shot 13 under that week to win the overall crown by four. It was a dazzling display of clutch golf by the Northern Irishman, who repeatedly stiff-armed Koepka down the stretch and made the PGA Tour number-crunchers look like absolute geniuses.
Can it be that good every year? Probably not, but for all the illusion and confusion that characterized previous postseasons, the weighted-scoring adjustment was a huge and desperately needed victory for Camp Ponte Vedra. The playoffs had lacked credibility because the formula never made much sense. Numerous attempts to balance season-long performance with all-on-the-line excellence had gone unfulfilled, with too much emphasis placed on the final week.
A sample size of one doesn’t guarantee success, but finally, a work in progress is no longer a mess.
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