EDISON, N.J. – Dustin Johnson beat the rain and everyone else Saturday at The Barclays to win the opening FedEx Cup playoff event.
Johnson shot a 29 on the front nine of rain-softened Plainfield Country Club for the second straight day and closed with a 6-under 65 to pull away from mistake-prone Matt Kuchar for a two-shot victory.
The Barclays was reduced to 54 holes because of Hurricane Irene, and there was as much drama in the sky as on the course. Kuchar started the third and final round with a one-shot lead. If the round could not be completed because of too much rain, the tournament would have reverted to 36 holes and Kuchar would have been declared the winner.
The rain came down hard right after Johnson holed a bunker shot for eagle on the fourth hole. But it held off just long enough for Johnson to collect his first win of the year and fifth of his career. He becomes the first player since Tiger Woods to go straight from college and win in each of his first four years on the PGA Tour.
“We got lucky,” said Johnson, who moves to No. 4 in the world ranking. “The weather held up for us long enough.”
Johnson, who finished at 19-under 194, wasn’t the only big winner on Saturday.
Ian Poulter birdied four of his last five holes for a 64, making him one of eight players who moved inside the top 100 in the FedEx Cup standings and advance to the second playoff event next week outside Boston.
William McGirt, the last of the 125 players who qualified for the playoffs, birdied the 17th hole that pushed him to No. 96. Padraig Harrington went from No. 124 to No. 80 with his tie for 13th. And then there was Ernie Els. He would have been eliminated had the tournament been cut short to 36 holes. Els had a 67 to from 118th in the standings to No. 99.
“You’re trying to survive. It’s desperation,” Els said. “It’s sadistic. In a way it’s fun, if you’re into that (stuff).”
Johnson goes atop the FedEx Cup standings as the four-tournament race begins for the $10 million prize.
The course was so soft and vulnerable to low scoring that Brandt Snedeker made an early run at 59 when he birdied his opening five holes and went out in 29. He was slowed by a bogey on the 14th and wound up with a 61 to tie for third with Vijay Singh, who had a 68.
Kuchar and Johnson, however, separated themselves quickly with a riveting front nine.
Johnson opened with back-to-back birdies to briefly take the lead, and then the fun began. Kuchar birdied the par-3 third for a two-shot swing when Johnson missed the green. Johnson responded with a two-shot swing of his own by driving into the bunker on the 328-yard fourth and holing out for eagle, while Kuchar had to scramble for par.
They matched birdies on the fifth, seventh and ninth greens, and that’s where Johnson showed that extra work on his putter was paying off. He holed a 25-foot birdie on the seventh when Kuchar already was in tight, then a tricky 12-foot putt on the ninth after Kuchar had laid back and spun his approach into 4 feet.
Kuchar caught Johnson with a 15-foot birdie on the 11th, but it unraveled after that.
Kuchar decided to lay up on the par-5 12th - Johnson was in the rough and had no choice - figuring that his wedge game would lead to birdie. But he was on a slope in between wedge, an awkward shot to a tough pin, and his shot landed in the middle and spun back off the green.
He rolled his putt some 6 feet past the hole and missed the next one for bogey to fall one shot behind. On the next hole, Kuchar again had a length putt from just off the green and rammed them past the hole and off the green on the other side to make another bogey. Just like that, he was two shots behind. Against Johnson, it was hard to make that up.
“Sunday tendencies are to come up a little short, and I gave it a little extra,” Kuchar said. “Very frustrating because I feel like that’s the strong part of my game.”
Crews had removed the scoreboards before the last round because of the approaching hurricane, although it didn’t matter to the guys trying to win the tournament. They knew were they stood.
It was farther down the list, where players were trying to get into the top 100 to keep chasing the $10 million FedEx Cup, where it mattered. McGirt had some help from his wife, who was in the gallery.
From the 17th fairway, she flashed “101” with her fingers, to indicate where he was projected to finish in the standings. He pulled 7-iron and produced the “best swing I made all week, bar none” to 5 feet for birdie.
Johnson now has the most wins (5) of any American in his 20s, although this one seemed overdue. He had gone nearly a year since his last win, despite having chances at a World Golf Championship in March and the British Open in July.
He showed off his power by hitting driver on just about every hole, enough to clear bunkers and other trouble. And his putting carried him, especially the key birdies to match Kuchar on the front nine.
The only help he needed was from the weather, and Johnson got that, too.
He grabbed the crystal and the $1.44 million for winning, spoke to the press and then raced across the parking lot to get to a private airport and fly home to South Carolina for a few days. The Deutsche Bank Championship doesn’t start until Friday.