Johnson evolves into Tour Championship centerpiece


Since the day in 2008 he stepped full time onto the PGA Tour, Dustin Johnson has been first team All-Grill-Room. Nobody possibly could look more imposing just standing there against the walnut paneling than this 6-foot-4 guard-forward combo living in a chip and putt world.

Johnson could appear the specimen dressed even in the gentle colors of his chosen sport. He was, after Tiger Woods, the man most responsible for the world going nuts and starting to call golfers athletes.

That eight years later Johnson has begun employing his advantages fully on the course is a matter of public record, having claimed his first major championship and grabbed the pole position for PGA Tour player of the year.

To review the transformation that has left Johnson as the No. 1 seed here in the FedEx Cup final, the favorite to win the Tour Championship at East Lake and a payoff that could be measured by the gross ton instead of dollars:

  • Went away for six months in 2014 to tend to undisclosed personal matters, and set off quite a conversation about the Tour’s substance abuse policy and secretive disciplinary dealings. As he sought clarity, the rest of the world got very confused about his situation.
  • Had a kid. With Wayne Gretzky’s kid. His chromosome can beat up your chromosome.
  • Learned, after becoming world famous for his explosiveness with the longest club in the bag, how to master one of the shortest.

 

Something is certainly working. By the results of this season we must assume he has made great strides in getting his stuff together. Just assume, mind you. Johnson is not much into taking long walks on the beach of public self-examination. In his news conferences he is more into the gestalt of see-ball-hit-ball-far.

At East Lake, Johnson’s standing is undisputed. “My clear favorite has to be Dustin,” said Paul Casey, No. 5 in the FedEx Cup point standings.

“You know you need everything around East Lake. So, Dustin has to be the clear favorite because his wedge game has become so good in the past 12 months. It’s very tough to beat a guy like that when he plays well.”

This is Johnson’s seventh visit to the Tour Championship, his first as The Man. He has never finished higher than fifth in the tournament, and his stroke average at East Lake is modestly over par, if just barely (70.08). Nothing really blinding about his play here.

It is a different Johnson teeing off Thursday in the last twosome, with Patrick Reed. He is shaping his shot off the tee differently, fashioning a more reliable cut (left to right). Most importantly, the Tour’s longest driver, the fellow who makes nearly everyone he plays with feel very small, has worked himself into a formidable player around the green. A guy who because of his absurd length off the tee is going to be holding a second-shot wedge in his hand quite often should become adept with the club. This year, he ranks fourth on the Tour in proximity to the pin from 50 to 125 yards out (just four years ago he was 166th.)

And like the old saying goes: Drive for endorsements, putt for dough. Or something like that. When he is closing the deal with a steady putter, there are no apparent gaps in Johnson’s game.

“You look at him and he checks all the boxes of what a No. 1 player in the world looks like (Johnson’s currently No. 2, with a bullet),” said Brandt Snedeker, a former FedEx Cup champion returned to the Tour Championship. “It’s been fun to watch him kind of evolve into that player.”

“Me today (as opposed to the other versions at East Lake), I feel like I’m driving it a little bit better than I have been in years past. My wedge game is definitely better. So if I miss a fairway, I can just get it out to where I’ve got a wedge and I feel like I’ve got a good chance to get up and down,” Johnson said.

“I think the biggest difference for me than in years past is my wedge game has improved a tremendous amount.”

No active player has more consecutive seasons with at least one PGA Tour victory than Johnson — he has won in all nine of his seasons out here. But it wasn’t until this season, in which he won the U.S. Open and twice more, including the BMW Championship two weeks ago, that Johnson was seriously shaking hands with his potential.

Which lends him yet one more dangerous weapon this week. “Right now his confidence is so high,” said world’s No. 1 Jason Day. “When you have a lot of confidence and you feel like nobody can beat you, it’s game over for everyone else.”



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