CARMEL, Ind. — You don’t need statistics to appreciate Dustin Johnson. All you need to do is stand behind him on a tee box here at Crooked Stick Golf Club and watch him launch a drive. It’s a lot like watching Tiger Woods launch a drive in the early 2000s.
You are shocked by the sound, the height and the power. Then you are awed by the ball flight. Finally, and this all happens within three seconds, you shake you head and smile, because hey, man, that’s impossible.
In the wake of Johnson’s victory Sunday at the BMW Championship, I’m naming him No. 1 player in my Personal Eyeball Test World Rankings. (No, they’re not recognized by any major golf tours.) Nothing personal, Jason Day, but this year, I’ll take DJ’s best versus your best and like my chances. I’d pay to see that, I might add.
I’m also handing Johnson my unofficial 2016 Player of the Year Award. This BMW victory gives him three wins. Day has three wins, too. Dustin’s got a U.S. Open, though, and that’s the ultimate possible tiebreaker.
Hey, European Ryder Cuppers, raise your hand if you’d like a piece of DJ. Nobody wanted a piece of him here this week, either. Crooked Stick is a place for a Big Stick. John Daly proved it when he won the 1991 PGA Championship on this Pete Dye design. Johnson proved it this week. Heavy storms that left the course softer than oatmeal played right into the hands of the Big Sticks who kept it on the short grass.
Players weren’t getting any roll on these fairways, which were so damp and muddy that the PGA Tour allowed lift, clean and place even though Sunday was bright, sunny and beautiful.
Here were some of Dustin’s all-carry drives through the first 11 holes: 318, 316, 314, 322, 320. Those are yards, not the numbers of the rooms I’ve checked into this year at assorted Courtyard Marriotts.
Those critics a few years ago who wondered if and when Johnson would ever tap into his potential? That time is now, at age 32.
Think back to June. Johnson made the 18th hole at Oakmont look like an easy birdie hole. It isn’t even if you consider it a par-5. It’s a monster par-4 and he made a cupcake 3 to finish off his U.S. Open victory. Johnson, a flexible and big athlete (6 feet 4 inches) who can dunk in his bare feet, has the ability to make any course and any opponent look small.
He worked hard on his wedge play over the winter, improving one of his weaknesses. He switched putter models this week and started making putts. Give him those two things plus his power game and, yep, everyone else is small.
England’s Paul Casey chased Johnson as best he could. Casey is a fun guy with a delightful, wry smile and a sense of humor. He knew he was up against it Saturday night when he finished 54 holes three shots behind Johnson even though the worst score he’d posted in three rounds was 68.
He joked about having “a front-row seat” to watch Johnson’s display and how DJ carved a 3-wood around the corner Saturday at the 14th hole, oh, let’s call it 340 yards.
“OK, it wasn’t that far but goodness me, he’s a great athlete, impressive stuff,” Casey said. “Dustin doesn’t react to anything. He made a bogey and he just shrugs it off and hits it 350 around the next corner. Not much you can do.”
Sunday didn’t figure to be much of a shootout. Johnson brought a cannon, everyone else carried carbines. Then Johnson missed par putts at the 2nd and 3rd holes while Casey birdied them and got within one. Things got interesting. For a minute.
Johnson birdied four of the next five holes. He looked like a runaway train that not even Denzel Washington and Chris Pine could stop on the back nine. Not much you can do.
But wait! Johnson bogeyed the par-3 13th after Casey birdied the 12th. Maybe, just maybe…
Casey poured in a 25-foot putt for eagle at the par-5 15th that drew a huge roar. He was within one stroke with three to play. Johnson topped him moments later with an 18-footer for an eagle of his own. The gallery roared again, this time like Peyton Manning had just unretired and signed with the Colts. Not much you can do.
As Johnson’s ball curled in on the cup’s left side and toppled in, Johnson raised his putter in the air with his left hand. He was nonchalant, seemingly without a pulse. Had he mouthed, “Whatever,” you would not have been surprised.
But it was no ordinary stroke and he knew it. So did Casey, who paused before he left the green to walk beneath the grandstands to the next tee so he could look back and give Johnson the big nod, the one that implies, “Now that was a helluva putt.”
Johnson was three ahead with three to play and that’s how it ended.
“That was something special the last two days, I did everything I could,” Casey said Sunday evening. “I ran into a buzz saw.”
The funny thing is, the BMW Championship is inevitably an undercard. There’s either a Ryder Cup selection undercurrent — as there is this week with Davis Love set to announce three of his captain’s choices Monday — or there’s the Race to Atlanta. As screwy as the FedEx Cup points system is, you know one thing — you can’t win the FedEx Cup $10 million bonus unless you get to Atlanta.
The latter is supposed to create drama. I guess it did. Rickie Fowler slid to 31st position, one spot out of the final, when J.B. Holmes made a short par putt at the 18th hole a few hours after Fowler finished. Justin Rose isn’t going, either. Henrik Stenson took off this week, so he, too, won’t be in Atlanta. Sergio Garcia missed out after venting his frustrations on a misbehaving putter in the third round, then tweeting that it was ironic that he bent his putter at Crooked Stick. Funny. It was nice to see him own his mistake but unless he’s appearing at some improv comedy club, he will not be in Atlanta.
Roberto Castro, the 36-hole leader, turned it on in the final round. He needed a high finish to crack the top 30 for East Lake and he came through in the clutch, finishing solo third with an excellent closing 67. Charl Schwartzel tied for fourth and moved up to the 30th and final spot. Nice, but not a development that kept the viewer at home from switching over to football.
Neither the Ryder Cup nor the FedEx Cup could overshadow Johnson this week. He posted 23 under par. Casey shot 20 under. Castro (17 under) was the only other player in the field better than 12 under. Castro and Casey were terrific. Johnson was…insert your superlative here.
When we see one of the game’s best players get hot and play his best golf, it looks as if he’s the Player of the Decade and he’s never going to play poorly again.
See Day and Jordan Spieth last year, Rory McIlroy the year before. It’s what made you believe in the Big Three for a while.
That media-made trio has broken up. Earlier this year, it appeared that Day had pulled away and become the Big One. We might be calling him that if he hadn’t been nosed out by Jimmy Walker at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. On Sunday, Day pulled out at Crooked Stick after eight holes with a back problem, a recurring issue he has had throughout his career because he swings with such force.
Now, Johnson is playing his best, which is pretty darned good. He looks like golf’s new Big One. He’ll be the favorite for the Tour Championship in Atlanta in two weeks and a daunting opponent to draw at the Ryder Cup in Minnesota the following week.
The man flies it 320 without any apparent effort, sticks his wedges close and makes putts. He’s got a glamorous partner — Paulina Gretzky — and an adorably cute son who ran onto the 18th green Sunday and into his daddy’s arms. Johnson scooped him up with a big, proud smile.
Nope, not much you can do.