ATLANTA, Ga. — There should be fireworks, there should be a grand finale. This is, after all, the dadgum end of the official PGA Tour season, the Tour Championship. (Never mind that another whole new season starts up in three weeks, that’s a topic for another time.)
There should be thrills, chills and spills. Thursday, there were plenty of spills thanks to East Lake Golf Club’s thick Bermuda rough, so nasty that it makes the stuff at Oakmont look as thin as you-know-who’s famous comb-over.
But thrills may be as rare as Indian-head nickels this week. Guess who coasted around a tough course nonchalantly and made a four-under-par 66 look like it was nothing special? Dustin Johnson, your U.S. Open champion who’s been busy lately locking up the Player of the Year Award.
If you’re the PGA Tour, this is your big finish, your televised moment in the sun since you don’t run any of golf’s four major championships, and the designated difficult setup turned the opening round into a bogeyfest for much of the field. But not for Johnson who is threatening to end any suspense about this tournament’s outcome or the race for the accompanying $10 million FedEx Cup bonus.
Since Johnson is currently No. 1 on the redistributed points list this week, he locks up the bonus if he wins. He controls his own destiny, much like the way he controlled his own destiny in winning the BMW Championship two weeks ago with relative ease.
Kevin Chappell and Hideki Matsuyama also opened with 66. It’s one round, East Lake is baring its teeth and nobody here is Tiger Woods, so anything can happen. But Johnson has been happening more often than anyone else in golf and is going to ascend to No. 1 in the world golf rankings one of these weeks, so be prepared for another DJ run.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in my game,” Johnson said, “so that helps me stay relaxed.”
Chappell, a former NCAA champion from UCLA who’s still chasing his elusive first Tour victory, was pleased with his bogey-free opening round. But he entered this week in 15th place on the points list and the Tour’s magic Rubik’s Cube says he needs a lot of top players to fall apart to snag the $10 million bonus. After his round, a Tour official told him the specifics of what would have to happen for him to win it.
“With the form Dustin Johnson is in,” Chappell joked, “I don’t think that scenario is going to happen for me. But there’s a chance to win a golf tournament and that’s all I’m really focused on.”
East Lake was not as easy as Johnson, Chappell and Japan’s Matsuyama made it look. In fact, it wasn’t even easy for Matsuyama.
“My putting and short game saved me today,” he said with a smile. “I wasn’t hitting the ball real crisp. Today I was lucky. I mis-hit a lot of drivers but they found the fairway so I was fortunate.”
Kevin Kisner, who shot 67, said the rough was brutal and that he likes it that way. Last fall he looked like a guy who might be a Ryder Cup candidate when he broke through and won at Sea Island, but he didn’t stay hot through the summer. “I think the rough needs to be brutal for the Tour Championship,” he said. “I would expect the setup to be major championship setup golf.”
Troubles outweighed potential Plays of the Day at East Lake. Phil Mickelson made an absurd putt from the fringe for birdie on the opening hole. It was 94 feet 7 inches according to the Tour’s ShotLink System. It was pretty cool, and Phil wielded his familiar what-me-worry grin. It wasn’t as cool when he racked up a double and triple bogey later on the front nine en route to a 74.
Rory McIlroy, honing his game to lead Europe in next week’s Ryder Cup, made back-to-back doubles on the front nine’s closing holes but piled on seven birdies to salvage 68.
“There weren’t a lot of 4s on the scorecard, that’s for sure,” McIlroy joked. “After 14 holes, I had one 4. There were a lot of 3s and a lot of 5s. When you miss fairways here, you really struggle. It’s really tough out of the rough.”
There were plenty of not-so-good scores to go around, from the 77s by Kevin Na and William McGirt to PGA champ Jimmy Walker’s 74.
If Dustin Johnson is going to play like Dustin Johnson this week, well, none of these other rounds may matter. And if Johnson kills the FedEx Cup race suspense — we are a long ways from that, of course — that leaves only the race for the final wild-card pick to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
That focus falls squarely on the back of Bubba Watson, who shot 72. He’s ranked seventh in the world but was not among captain Davis Love’s first three choices to be added to the team. Love will announce the final addition Sunday night. Is Love really going to base his decision on this week’s showing? Really, how relevant is a player’s performance on a dry, fast Bermuda-grass track to Hazeltine National, the Ryder Cup venue, which will likely be soft, cool and feature bent grass? You wouldn’t expect the same player to play well and putt well in both places.
Bubba said he’s tuning out all that Ryder Cup noise and dealing with East Lake itself. “It’s a long marathon around this place,” he said. “This is the toughest I’ve seen the rough. I haven’t seen the ball sit down in the rough like this for a while. So it takes some getting used to, and obviously playing smart out of the rough.”
Watson is the two-time Masters champion who played erratically this summer and missed automatically qualifying for the team even though he won at Riviera back in February. He seems like the leading contender to be added to the team, but he hasn’t been in prime form of late.
“I’m just trying to somehow play good in Atlanta,” he said. “The only thing I know is that Davis told me, and told everybody, is that it’s about who matches up well. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if it’s about partners. If a guy matches up better with two people or a guy matches up better with three people, I don’t know. You know as much as I do.”
Another reason Watson might be the guy is that the final pick will be announced on television during halftime of the Sunday night football game. Wouldn’t that situation dictate that the pick be a name that the general public was familiar with, like Bubba, instead of a lesser known player such as Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger, Ryan Moore or even Chappell?
It’ll be food for thought as the week goes on and if Johnson keeps doing what he’s been doing, it’ll be the only thing we’ll have to snack on here this weekend.
Asked what he’s thinking about this week since he’s already locked up a spot for next week’s Ryder Cup, Johnson said, “If I can keep putting well, I’ll be dangerous.” Asked if he’s ever had a week of great ballstriking and great putting, Johnson quietly shook his head. “Not yet,” he said, drawing laughter from reporters. “I didn’t putt great in Akron but I was making my short putts.”
Well, he added after a few moments thought, he did hit it great and putt great for three of the rounds in Shanghai at the World Golf Championship event a few years back.
“I don’t remember when that was,” he said. “But I won.”
Yeah. We’re getting used to that.