Dustin Johnson rebounds with a rout at the Northern Trust

By Bill Pennington

Dustin Johnson had just missed a straightforward 6-foot birdie putt on the ninth hole at the Northern Trust golf tournament Sunday, squandering a chance to extend his commanding lead in the event’s final round. Then, walking across a street to the 10th tee, he tripped and stumbled before regaining his footing.

The proverbial bump in the road? Two hiccups that might derail, or unnerve the famously tranquil Johnson?

Not a chance. Johnson hammered an iron shot 267 yards into the middle of the 10th fairway then made a comfortable par. Two holes later, he expanded his lead to nine strokes over his closest competitor, Harris English. The rout continued, interrupted only by a 75-minute thunderstorm delay, but in the end, Johnson had his 22nd PGA Tour victory and took the lead after the opening event of the 2020 FedEx Cup playoffs.

Johnson’s final round 63 at the Northern Trust, coupled with a career-low 60 on Friday and two other rounds in the 60s, left him 30-under par for the tournament. English, who shot 69 on Sunday, was second at 19-under par. It was Johnson’s second victory since the PGA Tour resumed in mid-June after a three-month layoff because of the COVID-19 pandemic and his third time winning the Northern Trust.

“My ball-striking was unbelievable; I found something on Wednesday,” Johnson said. “I was swinging really good but something clicked on Wednesday.”

Johnson began the day with a five-stroke lead and quickly made a statement to the rest of the field on the second hole when he rolled in a 6-foot eagle putt. From there, Johnson only stomped on the accelerator, with birdies in four of his next six holes. It was an impressive stretch, although not nearly as striking as Friday’s round when Johnson was 11-under-par through his first 11 holes — a performance built on accurate, powerful tee shots, deft iron play and confident, precise putting.

As English, who also had four rounds in the 60s during the tournament, said of Johnson in a television interview during the rain delay: “Dustin hasn’t missed a shot and he’s putting really well. That’s a tough combination.”

For Johnson, this month has been a remarkable revival from a dreadful July when he shot 80 in back-to-back rounds at the Memorial Tournament and missed the cut. At his next tournament, he opened with a 78 and promptly withdrew. But the respite led to a turnaround in August which has seen Johnson record 12 successive rounds in the 60s, including at the PGA Championship when he finished tied for second. With Sunday’s victory, Johnson also becomes the No. 1 ranked player in men’s golf as the PGA Tour nears the close of its truncated 2020 season.

“Obviously, I’ve got myself into a really good position,” Johnson said of the FedEx Cup playoffs, which he has never won. “It’s just something that I would really like to have on my resume when I’m done playing golf. It’s a big title. It means a lot to all the guys out here.”

About seven hours before Johnson finished, Tiger Woods, who barely made the cut for the second half of the tournament, completed a notable round. After two desultory rounds Friday and Saturday when he shot a combined 2-over par and fell out of contention, Woods rebounded Sunday by birdieing his first four holes. He closed with a 5-under-par 66 to finish at 6-under for the tournament.

Unfortunately for Woods, his rally may not be enough to keep alive a bid for a third FedEx Cup title. Woods will play in next week’s BMW Championship at the Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois, but he will need a stellar outing to advance to the final round of the FedEx Cup playoffs. Woods’ finish Sunday left him in 57th place in the FedEx Cup standings. Only the top 30 golfers will qualify for the final event of the playoffs, the Tour Championship at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Sept. 4-7.

Woods knew the math after his round Sunday, and had one solution for getting into the top 30: win the BMW Championship.

“I don’t know what the number will be for me to move on to East Lake, but obviously a ‘W’ definitely gets it done,” he said.

Overall, Woods said he felt fit after the four rounds of the Northern Trust, which potentially could be the first of four tournaments he plays in five weeks. He said his surgically repaired back, which has hampered him periodically this season, did not factor into his play.

“My body feels pretty good,” Woods said. “You know, this is going to be a long haul either way. Hopefully, I get into the Tour Championship and that helps me get ready for the U.S. Open.”

The U.S. Open is scheduled for Sept. 17-20 at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Woods played Sunday with Rory McIlroy, who also finished near the bottom of the leaderboard. Afterward, McIlroy admitted that he continued to be disquieted by the eerie silence of professional golf’s fanless environment, a necessary, if unpopular, condition of the tour since it resumed June 11.

McIlroy, who has had an uneven summer with six finishes outside the top 30 in his past seven events, said he misses the energy and motivation that thousands of fans brought to tournaments. It is more than an absence of cheering: There is a sameness to each tournament without the quirks and eccentricities that fans from different regions bring to a sporting event.

“This is going to sound really bad, but I feel like the last few weeks, I’ve just been going through the motions,” said McIlroy, who shot 69 on Sunday to finish 28 strokes behind Johnson. “I want to get an intensity and some sort of fire, but I just haven’t been able to. And look, that’s partly to do with the atmosphere and partly to do with how I’m playing. I’m not inspiring myself and I’m trying to get inspiration from outside sources to get something going.”

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