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Johnson stakes claim as top young American

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EDISON, N.J. – Dustin Johnson had only one thought after winning The Barclays, which he first told his caddie as they left the 18th green and later swing coach Butch Harmon on his way to the airport.

It’s about time.

Johnson is in that elite group of players who expect to win every year, no matter how much harder that has become these days on the PGA Tour. He has the whole package. Not only is he among the longest hitters in golf, he is not afraid to take on any shot under any situation.

But it had been nearly a year since he won the BMW Championship last year, and time was running out.

“We’ve both been frustrated all year that he hadn’t won,” Harmon said Sunday. “He’s been playing well tee-to-green, but his putting has let him down. But this kid is really resilient. Even if he messes up, as we’ve seen, it’s like water off a duck’s back. He keeps playing, and that’s his biggest strength. He’s a very aggressive player, and he continues to play aggressively.”

That much was clear at The Barclays, which was reduced to 54 holes when it became clear Hurricane Irene was on the way. Plainfield Country Club already was soft from rain, and Johnson simply overpowered it to eventually overtake Matt Kuchar on Saturday.

Johnson is as long as he needs to be, one of those players who has an extra gear with his driver. He appeared to be in overdrive for the final 36 holes, with four of the par 4s that he could reach or nearly reach off the tee.

He took the lead for good with a drive on No. 4 that went into the front bunker. In the sand for the first time all week, he holed the shot from about 85 feet for eagle. And on the ninth, he hammered his tee shot into another bunker that was pin-high, and although he had an awkward stance, he did well to get it out to 12 feet and make another birdie.

Johnson closed with nine pars, although the pins were tucked on the back nine, and shot 65 for a one-shot victory.

Not only was it the fifth career win for the 27-year-old Johnson - the most of any American in his 20s - he became the first player since Tiger Woods in 1999 to go straight from college and win in each of his first four years on the PGA Tour.

These are the kind of statistics that don’t lie.

“Guys like Dustin Johnson can make golf seem really easy,” Kuchar said, who held his own until back-to-back bogeys to shoot 68. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy drive the ball a whole lot better than Dustin Johnson. If you could have any one attribute as a golfer … you would want to hit it that far and that accurate.

“From there, golf gets a whole lot easier.”

Johnson has still managed to make it hard on himself at times. He was in the last group at Doral and hit the ball beautifully, only to miss just about every putt that mattered and finish runner-up to Nick Watney. He also got into contention at the British Open until one bad swing - a 2-iron that went out-of-bounds on the par-5 14th - ended his hopes.

The Barclays was a big win for Johnson.

For one thing, it put him atop the FedEx Cup standings and gave him a nose in front as players chase the $10 million prize. It also removed any doubt - if there was any - that he is top American.

Johnson moved up to a career-best No. 4 in the world ranking. His last two wins have come against some of the strongest fields, both of them FedEx Cup playoff events. And while he has yet to win a major, he has played in the final group in every major but the Masters over the last two years.

That’s why he spoke with such confidence at the start of the year.

He was asked at the season-opener in Kapalua about the prospects of Woods, and whether it was important to golf for Woods to start winning again. And if that were the case, would it mean fewer chances for others to win? Johnson said he would to see Woods return to form, but that’s where his interest ended.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I’m still going to win.”

He did, although it took him longer than he imagined. The key for Johnson was spending extra time on his putting, at home in south Florida and early in the week at Plainfield.

“Not necessarily making putts, but just getting it started on line,” Johnson said. “Because I read the greens very well. So to me, you can’t control if the ball goes in, but you can control where you start it. I’ve just been working on starting it where I’m looking.”

Harmon started working with Johnson a year ago at The Players Championship, and while Johnson loves life away from the golf course, Harmon said he puts in the time and is not afraid to test something new in competition.

That led to another comparison with Woods.

“One thing I like about this kid, which is a lot like Tiger, is that when we work on something, he takes it right out and puts it in play,” Harmon said. “I tell him that it was to work in the heat of battle, not just on the range. Good or bad, he’s going to try it.”