ATLANTA – Dustin Johnson is 36 holes away from filling one of the few holes remaining in his resume, but there is much more than 29 players and 3 ¼-inches of gnarly Bermuda rough between DJ and the season-long jackpot.
With this season’s reduced slate of majors, the 2019-20 campaign was always going to be graded on a different scale, and for guys like DJ that puts unique focus on the FedExCup. The season-long race has continued to rise in prestige since its inception in 2007 and this year proves an even more weighty prize, with its outcome potentially also deciding the Tour’s Player of the Year title.
Of the half dozen players who arrived at East Lake with a fighting chance to also win the Nicklaus Award, Johnson was arguably the front-runner. Not only did he start the week at 10 under par, but arrived as the hottest player in the game.
Two weeks ago at TPC Boston, he lapped the field by 11 strokes with a U.S.-mainland-record, 30-under total. Last week, it took a 66-foot walk-off by Jon Rahm to keep Johnson from going back to back. Over those two weeks, he had nearly three times the number of birdies (38) as bogeys (14).
It looked like he might walk to the FedExCup at the POY Award.
And while, yes, he still in the lead at 13 under par, a shot ahead of Sungjae Im, it hasn’t been easy.
“The fairways are narrow. It’s hard to hit them. My ball is not going where I’m looking right now with the driver,” Johnson explained.
Statistically, it’s actually worse than it sounds.
Through two rounds, Johnson has managed to hit just 7 of 28 fairways. As anyone with even a passing understanding of East Lake knows, that’s no way to live.
“I wouldn’t really say I struggled with my ball striking, more driving it in the fairway,” he said. “It’s hard to strike it well if you’re not in the fairway here. The few shots that I did hit off the fairway, I felt like I hit them pretty good.”
Over those seven holes where DJ has played from the short grass, he’s 3 under par. On everything else, he’s even par, facing an increasingly challenging finish at an event that has historically not treated him well.
In 2016, he began the Tour Championship atop the playoff points list and needed anyone not named Rory McIlroy to win the Tour Championship so he could claim the season-long title. McIlroy prevailed on both fronts. Two years later, DJ finished third at the Tour Championship, as Justin Rose clipped him for the cup.
For DJ, the missing FedExCup stands out on his resume. He’s the owner of 22 Tour titles. He’s gone 13 consecutive seasons and counting with at least one win. And while there are those who would rather talk about the majors he hasn’t won, the 2016 U.S. Open checks the box. He’s played on U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. He was the 2015-16 Player of the Year Award winner. He’s also the reigning world No. 1 and a future Hall of Fame inductee.
There’s no doubt he’d like to add to his major total. At 36-years-old there’s still miles remaining on that solid frame. But the immediate goal looms at East Lake.
There is an urgency to Johnson’s motions this week. The current postseason format heavily favors playoff performances which makes this opportunity so meaningful.
He might not ever have a better chance to win the FedExCup, a reality that likely drove him to the range immediately after his round, as he searched for answers for a wayward driver.
“It’s definitely very close. Just was a little out of sorts there mostly just with fundamentals, just with setup. Setup was a little bit off,” he said. “I just got some work done just now and feel a lot better with the driver.”
Johnson acknowledged that his strokes-based cushion is gone. Ironman Im looms, a past Tour Champion in Xander Schauffele is two shots back, and Johnson’s primary POY competition Justin Thomas is at 10 under par.
DJ is 36 holes away from filling one of the few holes remaining in his resume, but there’s no more room for error or a balky driver.