Barring a rally by Rory McIlroy, an implosion by Johnson - like the one that did derail his U.S. Open hopes in 2010 - or a breakthrough win by Kevin Chappell, the first Sunday of fall might have all the excitement of the 2008 finale when all Vijay Singh needed to do was not trip on his way to the first tee in order to collect the $10 million FedEx Cup jackpot.
Manufacturing drama is never easy, particularly when a player of Johnson’s talents refuses to yield to the nuances of competition. What are officials to do when the hottest player on the planet drops three birdies in three holes (Nos. 4-6) to extend his lead to four strokes? Johnson gave the final lap a measure of intrigue with a sloppy double bogey at the par-4 17th hole that led to a three-stroke swing, and set up a showdown with Chappell with the duo tied at 8 under par through 54 holes.
But even Chappell, who has three runner-up finishes and a third-place showing, conceded that the way Johnson has been dismantling fields from Oakmont to Akron this year, the leaderboard doesn’t paint an exact picture.
“No one else thinks it's going to happen. The scenario hasn't happened. So no one believes in me. So I got nothing to lose,” Chappell said. “I'm going to go out there and give it all I've got, and Dustin's going to play great golf. He's been in this situation a lot this year, and it will come down to one or two shots.”
Johnson’s 69 on Saturday was his highest playoff scorecard since Day 3 at TPC Boston and was his eighth consecutive round in the 60s. It would be nice to imagine a Sunday shootout for the Tour Championship title, but – with a monsoon of respect for Chappell – it’s not likely considering DJ is fifth on Tour in final-round scoring.
But then officials can hope.
As for the FedEx Cup, even if Chappell were to pull off the upset, he would need Johnson to tumble into a ninth-place finish or worse, along with a host of other unlikely scenarios, to cash the big check. McIlroy, who trails by two shots going into the final round, is the bigger threat to Johnson. If he wins the Tour Championship and Johnson finishes lower than solo second, McIlroy would take the FedEx Cup.
Otherwise, it will be a clean sweep for Johnson, and rightfully so. After a breakout season that included his first major victory at the U.S. Open and three Tour titles, the walk-off at East Lake would secure the Player of the Year Award, Vardon Trophy for scoring average and FedEx Cup.
In fact, about the only thing Johnson can’t claim on Sunday is the top spot in the world ranking, which will remain in Jason Day’s possession. But even that gap is narrowing.
“I've got a lot of confidence going into tomorrow, and I know I can get it done out here. I've won quite a few times out here. So that definitely helps,” Johnson said. “You've still got to go out and play some really good golf.”
Finishing the season strong is exactly what one would expect from Johnson, but it also leaves fans with just a single option for golf drama on Sunday, Love’s final pick which will be announced during halftime of the Dallas-Chicago game.
Although he doesn’t appear to be spending much time contemplating his chances, Chappell should be the leader in the clubhouse for the final pick. Even without a victory at East Lake, he tied for eighth at the Deutsche Bank Championship and is poised to add another bullet point to his resume at the finale.
But the consensus favorite is Bubba Watson, who helped his chances with a third-round 66 to move into a tie for 14th in the 29-player field, not that he was viewing this week as any kind of tipping point, however.
“The captain said that he was picking based off of who’s going to fit the team, who is going to fit players, who is going to complement other players,” Watson said. “Hopefully, at the end of the day, it’s me.”
Ryan Moore (T-3) and Justin Thomas (ninth) could also make Sunday’s decision interesting for Love & Co., and given Johnson’s recent track record as a closer it might be the golf world’s best bet for excitement on Sunday.