ATLANTA, GEORGIA | Dustin Johnson and the 2020 FedEx Cup deserve each other – in all the right ways.
This season in particular Johnson and the PGA Tour have excelled in making the difficult look easier than it is, their shared runs reaching the finish line Monday at sun-splashed East Lake Golf Club.
For Johnson, winning the Tour Championship and, consequently, the FedEx Cup was another career-defining achievement, one more point of emphasis for a player whose collective accomplishments now cast a long shadow.
Never one to talk much about himself, Johnson made it clear early in the week that winning at East Lake was important to him and he did it.
“I didn’t say I needed to win. I wanted to win. I wanted to be FedEx Cup champion,” Johnson said after finally holding off Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas in the final round.
There was a time when it was easy, or at least convenient, to define Johnson by what he hadn’t done given his missed chances in major championships. Then he won the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, tinted by the kind of curious circumstances that tended to shadow Johnson until he stamped his name on the national championship trophy with the 6-iron shot of his life into the final green.
It came a year after Johnson three-putted away a chance to be in a playoff with Jordan Spieth at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. It was like it never happened.
Now Johnson’s résumé is being measured against other all-timers, the FedEx Cup becoming the latest box checked on a list that includes 23 PGA Tour victories, the three most recent coming in an 11-week stretch that included the Travelers Championship in late June, the Northern Trust two weeks ago and now the Tour Championship.
As satisfying as the $15 million bonus that comes with winning the FedEx Cup may be, Johnson probably won something more heartfelt – the Player of the Year award from his peers, an honor he also earned in 2016.
Consider how close Johnson came to sweeping the FedEx Cup playoffs. Had Jon Rahm not done the unthinkable by sinking a 66-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole at the BMW Championship, Johnson might have pulled off a sweep, golf’s version of a hat trick that his quasi-father in law Wayne Gretzky can appreciate.
That’s not to mention carrying the lead into the final round of the PGA Championship where he shot 68 on Sunday but was overtaken by Collin Morikawa’s closing 64. He’s three swings from potentially winning five in a row.
For the sticklers out there, Johnson did not shoot the lowest score at East Lake but he didn’t have to, staking himself to a 10-under par starting position in the finale. It’s the nature of the event and does not detract from Johnson’s victory, though Schauffele might prefer otherwise having shot four strokes better across 72 holes this week.
Need to pick one player at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in two weeks?
Go back to when the PGA Tour season suddenly stopped in mid-March. Johnson had not finished inside the top 20 in his past eight starts in the 2019-20 season and not much had changed when golf stopped. Johnson stopped too.
He went eight weeks without touching his clubs and only reacquainted himself with the game to play a Sunday skins match at Seminole to raise money for COVID-19 relief funds. Johnson and the game were incommunicado.
Johnson had surrendered the No. 1 ranking, a place he had called home for more than a year, and the edge was gone from his game.
Now, meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
When Johnson is on, his game is overwhelming. For all of his power, there’s a simplicity about Johnson’s play that separates him. He has the comfort of knowing he can rip his cut tee shots into most fairways and build from there. He’s resharpened his wedge game and his confidence on the greens is apparent.
Johnson has never been considered a great putter but his record suggests he’s better than he’s been given credit for being.
A run like the one Johnson is on shapes legacies. Johnson doesn’t think much about those things but he’s in rare air. Whether it was Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth or Brooks Koepka, there’s often been a tendency to look at someone else before Johnson.
Because of how Johnson plays, the almost effortless appearance of his hard work, it’s been easy to take him for granted. He’s earned more than that because what he’s done doesn’t just happen.
It’s the same for the PGA Tour this season. It looks easy now, working through the pandemic, getting the schedule restarted and cruising through a 13-week, 14-event restart without so much as one paused day.
It was never easy and while the tournaments lacked the voices and faces outside the ropes, the plan, the execution and the commitment from everyone involved has resulted in a genuine success story.
When a handful of positive COVID tests popped up in June, the tour looked at its plan, adjusted its protocols and redoubled its commitment, getting the buy-in from all sides. It worked and here we are.
It culminated, at least in terms of the 2019-20 season, Monday at East Lake where this Tour Championship was played in relative silence and solitude, a now familiar but still strange and in some ways unfulfilling reality of our times.
Flash back to June 11 where the season restarted in Fort Worth, Texas. No one knew if it would last a day, a week, a month or all the way until now.
At that time, Dustin Johnson was a former No. 1, quietly drifting down the world rankings.
Late Monday afternoon at East Lake, Johnson cradled the FedEx Cup trophy and his success felt like it belonged to more than just him.
“I’m probably playing the best I’ve ever played,” Johnson said while receiving his hardware.
He stood alone.
For all the right reasons.