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Dustin Johnson ends Tour Championship where he started

Dustin Johnson 2020 Tour Championship
Dustin Johnson shows who's No. 1 at the end of the PGA Tour's 2019-20 season.

Given a head start in PGA Tour’s season finale, Johnson slams door on all challengers for his 3rd victory of the year and 23rd of his career, which he insists means more than the $15 million bonus

Starting Dustin Johnson off at 10 under par at the Tour Championship, the growing-in-prestige final act of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup season, is a little like handing the local mouse a 3D map to the cheese, no? And we’re talking a lot of cheese here. Here’s a guy, No. 1 in the world, all parts of his game in sync, lava hot, long off the tee, wielding a hot putter, staked to a head start as 30 players raced for their share of FedEx’s $60 million pot of gold – $15 million of which was set aside for winner.

If you’re surprised that D.J. finally – yes, let’s be serious for a moment, finally! – took home the cup, then you’re probably surprised each evening when the sun decides to set in the west. In Johnson’s last four starts, he was that good, that on song. His month was prime-time Tiger-like quality. Sure, there were talented players who jabbed at him, even on Monday, whittling his lead from five shots to two down the stretch. But in reality, this was like sending your bespectacled fifth-grader, all 5 feet and 110 pounds of him, out on the home driveway for a game of one-on-one against Shaq.

An odd scoring system in play at the Tour Championship, yes, but truthfully, Johnson earned every bit of his staggered advantage at East Lake. (He started 10 under, No. 2 Jon Rahm 8 under, No. 3 Justin Thomas 7 under, and so on down to Nos. 26-30, each of whom began the week at level par, 10 shots behind the leader). Johnson was finishing off a monthlong stretch of golf that measured near perfection in its dominance. Johnson took a lead into the final round in each of his final four starts (PGA Championship, Northern Trust, BMW, Tour Championship), and over 289 total holes, only two players – Collin Morikawa at the PGA and Rahm at BMW – got the better of him. In fact, both players had to come up with some late magic to keep Johnson from an incredible summer sweep. As it was, his run of T2-1-2-1 would pay rather handsomely at the ticket window.

“It’s like he’s led for a month,” NBC analyst Paul Azinger said on the weekend telecast. He pretty much had. For you accountants keeping score at home, Johnson’s four-tourney windfall was $18,704,000 … or roughly $280,000 less than former World No. 1 David Duval made in his entire career. Ah, but enough about the cash. His performance transcends dollars.

“I’m definitely playing the best I’ve ever played,” Johnson said Monday after receiving the FedEx Cup on the 18th green. “I really feel that everything is dialed in pretty well.”

You think? That’s like Michael Phelps saying he thinks he can swim to the end of the community pool and back. With a birdie at the final hole and closing 2-under 68, pushing him to 21 under for the week, Johnson won by three shots over Schauffele and Thomas (scores). Three years earlier, Schauffele and Thomas stood together on the final green at East Lake as the Tour Championship winner and FedEx Cup winner, respectively. Thomas was gutted that he’d just lost the Tour Championship, then a separate event from the FedEx Cup, and was being asked to hold aloft that beautiful FedEx trophy and to smile for the cameras. It wasn’t an easy assignment. Smartly, the Tour has done away with the two-trophy thing. Sometimes less is definitely more.

That aforementioned staggered start of the Tour Championship is unusual, to be sure, but two years in, the system is far easier for Joe SixPack to understand than the old FedEx points-driven days, when you were pretty much guessing what birdies and bogeys meant unless you had an MIT mathematics professor in the immediate family. (Full apologies to Golf Channel’s Steve Sands and his retired whiteboard.)

Schauffele, a true force of nature at East Lake Golf Club, where he never has shot an over-par round, Thomas and Rahm all showed up as interested challengers in the Monday finish – all three shot 4-under 66s – but Johnson proved to be too strong. Too steady. At critical times, he produced the big shots when needed. A nice birdie (18 feet) at the third to negate Schauffele’s hot start; a huge 7-footer for par at the ninth to prevent three consecutive bogeys before the turn; a clutch 21-footer crashing into the cup for par at 13; a 5-iron onto the putting surface at the water-guarded and treacherous 233-yard 15th; and an all-world sand wedge clipped perfectly over a high face from a fairway bunker left of the 16th (“The best one of them all,” Johnson would later call it). When Johnson deftly got up and down from a right-side bunker for birdie and victory at the par-5 closing hole, that FedEx Cup that had eluded him for so long finally was in his giant hands. (It meant so much that the erstwhile low-pulse gunslinger nearly gave a full fist-pump!)

Johnson is one of those guys who pretty much looks the same if he shoots 62 or 80. He’s got an exterior and interior that is triple-coated in Teflon, which can be a true gift in this game. When he handed away a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010, somebody in Johnson’s inner circle predicted it would be out of his mind by the time his jet was in the air. It was. Likewise, when Johnson three-putted from 15 feet on the 72nd green at Chambers Bay to squander (a) possible victory and (b) a chance at a playoff against Jordan Spieth five years ago in the U.S. Open, his support team, which includes Great One Wayne Gretzky, thought he’d probably want to sleep in the next morning at the vacation abode in Idaho. Instead, Johnson was mad that he got left out of morning golf. He joined the group on the second hole. Teflon man.

New day. New sky. New possibilities. That’s Dustin Johnson.

Thomas played alongside Johnson earlier this summer when Johnson shot 80-80 at Memorial, badly missing the weekend. Johnson’s swing was off to the point it physically hurt his back, and with the putter, he couldn’t roll a beach ball into the ocean. He withdrew the next week after an opening 78 at the 3M Open.

“I’ve never seen him as lost, anywhere remotely close to that lost,” Thomas, Johnson’s South Florida neighbor, said Monday in Atlanta. “He was grinding his ass off. He was putting so bad and playing so bad. But he never gave up. He wasn't quitting. He was just trying to find it out there, and he couldn't find it again the next week, and then next thing you know – what, two months later – he's the FedEx Cup champion and running away.”

Thomas added this about Johnson: “He's been out here for a while. He knows having a short memory is good out here.”

We only joke about Johnson appearing to lack enthusiasm once the final putt fell. It’s refreshing to see, firstly, how badly Johnson wanted to win that FedEx Cup, and then, be able to complete the mission. Staked to a Day 1 lead or not, winning this event is hardly as easy as one might think. Not since Tiger Woods in 2009 had a player entered the FedEx Cup finale leading in points and departed with the cup. Johnson has endured his share of tough tournament finishes, more than most, but that’s part and parcel of what accompanies playing at a level so consistently high that he more often than not is somewhere in the final-round mix. Johnson qualified for his 12th consecutive Tour Championship (he didn't compete in 2014 due to personal reasons). No other player in the field had more than seven consecutive appearances.

In the summer of 2014, Johnson, already a winner that season and headed for another U.S. Ryder Cup team, stepped away from the game in mid-summer to work on himself. Not as a golfer, but as a person. He enlisted a life coach and was away for six months. At the time, he seldom missed a good party, and he wasn’t getting nearly enough out of his immense talent. Shortly before returning to play in January 2015, he granted a handful of one-on-one interviews to writers to talk about his journey and what he wanted to accomplish. He was an eight-time PGA Tour winner at the time, a pretty good career for many. This writer won’t soon forget these poignant words that Johnson spoke: “I don’t want to be just mediocre,” he said. “I want to be great.”

But they were only words, and words need backing up. Johnson has done that three-fold. Monday’s victory was No. 3 for Johnson in the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season, and his torrid finish and overall domination at season’s end likely sewed up the PGA Tour's player-of-the-year honor for him, too. At 36, in a talent-rich era where it’s very difficult to win, Johnson has been collecting trophies at an impressive pace. He now has 23 victories (including six FedEx Cup playoff titles), landed a major (2016 U.S. Open) and has won three or more tournaments in four of his past five seasons. Easily, he’s World Golf Hall of Fame material. But he’s hardly done, already pointed toward a U.S. Open at Winged Foot that begins in a week’s time. This celebration will be brief.

There was a time when Johnson gave off a vibe that the $15 million would mean a whole lot more to him than another shiny trophy, but on Monday, those days were a faraway memory. This is how a No. 1 golfer performs under the gun. This one meant something extra.

“The money … I don’t really care about that,” he said. “I want to win tournaments, and I want to win trophies.”

As those go, he landed a really nice one on Monday. Finally, he's a FedEx Cup champion. It’s been a summer he won’t soon forget. Nor should we.

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