CARMEL, Ind. – Forget the NFL. Sunday at the BMW Championship, Dustin Johnson was creating his own matchup problems for the opposition.
Because when he’s driving it this absurdly long and straight, and when he’s putting this confidently, it doesn’t always seem like a fair fight for the rest of the field.
There were the 30-yard gaps between his and Paul Casey’s drives.
There was the resiliency with five front-nine birdies after two early bogeys.
And there was the cold-blooded eagle on the 15th hole, after Casey, for a few precious moments at least, trimmed the deficit to a single shot.
“I ran into a buzzsaw today,” Casey said with a shrug.
No player on the PGA Tour – not Jason, not Rory, not Jordan – makes extraordinary golf look as simple as Johnson. Sauntering around Crooked Stick, he led the field in driving distance and ball-striking, and ranked second in putting.
At 23-under 265, Johnson won by three over Casey and likely locked up PGA Tour Player of the Year honors in the process.
“It’s still a fair fight,” Spieth said, “but it means you have to have your A-plus game, and that doesn’t come around that often.”
After his third victory and eighth top-10 in his past 10 starts, Johnson still sits more than two world-ranking points behind Day. But he has never been closer to world No. 1.
It’s the first time in Johnson’s career that he has won three times in a season, the realization of the awesome potential that he has flashed ever since he broke on Tour in 2008. He has won at least one event in nine consecutive seasons, the longest active streak on Tour, but before this year it always seemed as though he’d yet to maximize his incredible talent. His unmatched skill set also worked against him, because shouldn’t a player who can drive the ball that long, and that straight, and possess such obvious gifts win multiple times a year and capture majors in bunches?
Probably so, but Spieth said one of the biggest differences this year is Johnson’s consistency off the tee, that he lacks the foul balls each round that could result in a double bogey. Instead, Johnson smashes a 330-yard power cut that keeps him in play – and ahead of his playing competitors. Even his mis-hits off the heel, Spieth said, “find the right side of the fairway and are just as long as if I bomb out.”
One of the other knocks on Johnson’s game over the years was that he didn’t take full advantage of those mammoth drives. He gives himself more wedge opportunities per round than, say, Spieth, but he didn’t capitalize on all of those chances. That has changed this year, after he purchased a Trackman to help dial in his distance with his wedges. Four years ago, Johnson ranked 166th on Tour in proximity to the hole from 50-125 yards (20 feet, 5 inches). Entering this week, he was fifth (15 feet, 11 inches). The Tour leader in driving distance (313.9 yards per pop), he’s also tops in proximity to the hole and third in putting average.
Little wonder his scoring average is a Tour-best 69.17.
What’s scary is that Johnson says there’s still “a lot of room for improvement.” His mid-iron play, normally his bread and butter, “wasn’t very good” at the BMW. And he still torched the place.
“What can you do?” Casey said.
On Sunday, Johnson gave only brief glimmers of hope to Casey, his lone challenger on this day.
Johnson had a shaky track record with a 54-hole lead (he was 2 of 6), and he opened with a pair of bogeys in his first three holes to drop into a share of the lead.
After the third round, Casey marveled at how Johnson seemed to lead the Tour in strokes gained-attitude – that he doesn’t get flustered by either a string of poor shots or surges in adrenaline. Sure enough, Johnson shook off those early bogeys with a 21-foot birdie on 4 and then a 6-footer on 5. Just like that, he was three clear again.
“It was just brilliant,” Casey said. “There’s not that many guys out here who have that ability to deal with good and bad. Brilliant.”
Asked later whether he agreed with Casey, that he had the ideal temperament for golf, Johnson stared blankly at the questioner.
“Sure …?” he said.
Johnson’s victory lap was interrupted on the par-5 15th when Casey rolled in a 25-footer for eagle to pull within a shot. Then Johnson stepped up and, using a putter he’d put in the bag just four days earlier, calmly rolled in the 18-footer to match. So overcome with emotion, he barely pumped his fist.
“Afterward,” Johnson said, “I was like, man, I could have gave a good fist pump there. That would have been pretty nice.”
Indeed, the beauty of Johnson is his simplicity. He has little use for any of the attention-grabbing theatrics of his superstar peers. Rather than mark his 6-inch putt on 18 so that he could receive the loudest ovation, he instead tapped in first, politely doffed his cap and raised his right hand to the crowd. He hugged his brother/caddie Austin, but that was the extent of the on-course celebration. It was perfectly DJ.
Left to make sense of the past few days was Casey, whose 20-under total would have won or forced a playoff in all but five events this season. It was his second consecutive runner-up, but his narrow losses have come to two of the game’s powerhouses, McIlroy and now Johnson.
What will it take to get over the hump? Casey smiled, then nodded at Johnson, who was heading across the walkway, toward the trophy presentation.
“Having him not in the field?”