OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – It just doesn’t happen very often, not at this level with so many quality players and the natural competitive ebb and flow of even the game’s best.
Even in their prime, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – the undisputed alpha and omega of their era – went head-to-head on a Sunday with a title on the line just five times out of roughly 300 events they played together.
That’s the sum total of more than two decades of hype and hope, and it proves the stars simply don’t align that often, which makes Sunday’s extra-holes extravaganza at The Northern Trust between Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson worth more than the sum of the outcome.
DJ vs. Jordan. The world’s Nos. 1 and 3 (Spieth would move to second in the world with his runner-up finish) mano a mano at a playoff event that is often overlooked as little more than an extension of the regular season. No disrespect to Hideki Matsuyama, the Japanese machine who was ranked second in the world, but this is as good as golf gets at the moment.
It wasn’t supposed to be this epic, not with Spieth three strokes clear and cruising through 54 holes. Things looked even more unlikely when the lead went to five strokes after five holes.
With Spieth anything is possible, as anyone who watched last month’s Open Championship can attest, but it certainly didn’t feel probable.
But like he did at Royal Birkdale, when Spieth squandered a three-stroke lead with an opening nine of 37, the Golden Child slowly let a golden opportunity slip through his grasp, first with a rinsed tee shot at the sixth hole, double bogey, and then a tugged approach shot at No. 9, bogey.
By the time the duo walked to the 11th tee the day’s final pairing was tied at 11 under, the byproduct of back-to-back two-stroke swings at the ninth and 10th holes and some clutch golf from Johnson.
“When he made his putt on 10 [for birdie], that's when I said, ‘OK, we've got a bunch of wedge holes here,’” said Spieth, who was 5-for-5 with a 54-hole lead of two shots or more in his career. “I expect him to go a couple under coming in. Therefore, I've got to step up to the plate now and deliver a couple birdies myself, and was able to do that.”
At the 17th hole, Spieth did what Spieth does in these situations when he rolled in an 18-footer for par to keep pace with Johnson; which made DJ’s 17-footer for par on the 18th hole to force overtime that much more impressive.
“I wasn't rooting for him to make that putt,” smiled Spieth when asked about Johnson’s par save at the last. “About 3 feet out, I thought it was high from my angle. But I thought it was missing high, but his body language was hanging in. I'm like, does that really still have a chance? My initial thought was: I just did that exact same thing to him the hole before.”
But if beating Spieth at his own game was satisfying, it didn’t take long for Johnson to revert to more familiar ways, with a drive on the first extra hole (No. 18) that sailed 341 yards and left just a wedge in from 95 yards. By comparison, Spieth took a conservative approach off the tee, playing to the right side of the fairway and was left with 174 yards to the hole.
On Saturday, Spieth was asked if he enjoys playing alongside Johnson at America’s annual team matches: “It's a lot of fun playing from DJ's shots. I love playing alternate-shot with DJ,” he laughed.
Against Johnson, however, is an entirely different story.
If ever there was an example of how Johnson’s power can so dramatically tilt the scales of a competition it came at the 73rd hole when he had only a 60-degree wedge shot into a bowled green, which he hit to 3 ½ feet for a title-clinching birdie, to Spieth’s 7-iron, which just missed the green right and left a winding 25-footer for birdie that he missed.
“It's a tough shot to that flag to get a 7-iron close. I mean, Jordan hit a pretty good shot. It just chased through the green,” said Johnson, who closed with a 66. “I was coming in with a 60 [degree wedge], so the odds went to my favor for sure.”
Sunday at Glen Oaks was just the second time the two had been paired together on the PGA Tour on a Sunday, and the first in the final group, which makes the title bout that much more intriguing giving the duo’s high-profile status in the game.
The 2015 U.S. Open had its moments, but back at Chambers Bay Johnson and Spieth weren’t paired together on that glorious Sunday, and at the time Spieth and Johnson were ranked second and seventh, respectively, in the world ranking.
Since then the two have been on a collision course, with Johnson winning the ’16 U.S. Open and three World Golf Championships and Spieth adding this year’s Open Championship to his major resume.
With Rory McIlroy still on the mend after an injury-plagued season and Jason Day struggling with inconsistent play, Johnson and Spieth have emerged as the default leading men in what has become an al a carte rotation of would-be world-beaters and on Sunday the golf world got what they wanted.
“I thought that was a fun show to be a part of. I was hoping it wasn't going to be that much fun,” said Spieth, who has now struggled to keep a lead in three of his last four starts, including his dramatic victories at the Open and Travelers Championship.
Even Johnson, whose lack of outward emotion on the course is legendary, flashed a rare moment of excitement with what he called a “weak” fist pump following his final putt in regulation.
“I like playing with Jordan in the last group, hopefully we play in the last group the last three [playoff] tournaments,” Johnson said.
It’s a sentiment that’s likely shared by many, but the harsh reality is these types of high-profile showdowns between the game’s best players just don’t happen very often, so take some time and savor one of the season’s most exciting Sundays.