NORTON, Mass. – Give him credit for this: Unlike, say, the National Weather Service, at least Dustin Johnson gave plenty of advance warning for this thunderstorm.
On Wednesday afternoon, after the first- and second-round groupings were announced for the Deutsche Bank Championship, the lanky South Carolinian tapped out this message on his iPhone: “Me and @bubbawatson going to give these New Englanders a #BOMBSAWAY showing on Friday & Saturday!!! Look out below!! #FedExCup.”
Up early on Friday (6:18 a.m.), some two hours before his first-round tee time at TPC Boston, Johnson again chimed in on Twitter: “This should be fun, Mr. @bubbawatson!! #FedExCup.”
Watching 18, smash-mouth holes with Bubba and D.J. was like seeing only one round of the slam-dunk contest, or 10 outs of the home-run derby. Witnessing supreme talents showing off their myriad and occasionally unfathomable skills . . . well, it always leaves you craving more, no? Fifteen of their drives sailed over the 300-yard mark. This was Boomtown in Beantown.
Shrugged Johnson, “I don’t try to hit it far; I try to hit it straight. But, you know, the fans seem to like it.”
Of course, at the end of the day, golfers count up the number of total shots, not just the ones that require a tape measure. Though he may have fallen behind in the latter category, if only slightly, Johnson beat Watson, 67-75, in Round 1, leaving him only five shots back at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
More important, though, Johnson’s was a strong and necessary performance for a man with more on the line this week than his pride. In four days, U.S. captain Davis Love III will make his four wild-card selections for the Ryder Cup. Best we know, Johnson is one of seven players vying for the final four spots, and a high finish at TPC Boston would help distinguish him from the pack in the final audition. Love, the casting director, announces his decision Tuesday.
“I’ve just got to play golf,” said Johnson, who tied for third at last week’s Barclays. “If I play good golf, I’ll be on the team.”
Johnson’s greatest strength is his prodigious length, but that already is available, in abundance, on the U.S. team. Watson, obviously, can pump it out there, and so can Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. Big and brawny Medinah will suit a long hitter, no doubt, but a 12-player team never can have enough great putters.
In the 2010 Ryder Cup, Johnson lost his first three matches at Celtic Manor before thumping Martin Kaymer in singles. He was no more impressive as a rookie on last year’s Presidents Cup team, going 1-3-1 at Royal Melbourne.
Johnson won earlier this year in Memphis, the sixth PGA Tour title of his blossoming career, and he remains in the Ryder Cup conversation despite having missed nearly three months with a back injury.
“You always feel a little bit extra pressure,” Johnson said, “but I just need to focus on my golf and focus on one shot at a time, keep doing what I’m doing.”
That’s fine. Enough forecasting. So can we please just appreciate what we saw here Friday?
For two days, Boston’s “Laser Show” has taken on an entirely new meaning. It refers not to Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox’s popular and gritty second baseman, but rather the long-driving exhibition between Johnson and Watson, two of the game’s most awe-inspiring talents.
Even on a sleepy Friday morning, when many fans hung back to watch Woods’ group, throaty Bostonians provided an appropriate soundtrack to a pairing of pre-eminent power players.
Holy cahw! Ya killed it!
Ah, nice shot there, Dahstin!
Unsheathing their drivers from the bag was like selecting the bazooka out of the weapons locker. Spectators prepared for an explosion. The sound off the players’ clubheads was so absurdly powerful – whap! – that grown men simply turned to each other and . . . giggled.
On No. 12, when both hit driver, Watson edged Johnson – by 2 yards. The third player in the group, Carl Pettersson – a short hitter by no means, averaging 297 yards a pop – was some 20 yards behind.
On 18, a par 5 that forces most players to drive down the left side, Johnson and Watson tried to go down the right, over a cavernous bunker, and their balls came to rest within 5 yards of each other. Johnson’s pop: 331 yards. Watson’s: 336. Only Johnson came away with a birdie, though.
While Fenway Park (some 40 minutes up the interstate) may be known as a hitter-friendly ballpark, so too is TPC Boston. The par-71 layout was listed at 7,216 yards on Friday, and with generous fairways and receptive greens it proved vulnerable in the first round. Only 15 players failed to break par in the morning wave – including Watson, whose 75 tied for the worst score among early starters – and Tiger Woods, two shots back, rattled off six consecutive birdies at one point.
Johnson had moved within three shots of the lead with a birdie on the sixth (his 15th of the day), but then double-crossed his tee ball on the par-5 seventh, leading to a bogey, and eventually posted 67.
As for who is longer off the tee, him or Watson, Johnson went the diplomatic route: “We hit it about the same.”
Maybe so. But on Friday, at least, they sure didn’t score like it.
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