Play begins; Johnson takes control
The Tournament of Champions finally started Monday. At the end of a long day, Dustin Johnson looked ready to end it.
Even though he showed up on Maui a week before the tournament and played six practice rounds, Johnson was among four players who had not even set foot on the Plantation Course at Kapalua for four days because of endless delays. Once he got going, he hardly missed a beat.
Johnson missed only three greens in regulation. Two of his three bogeys came on three-putts from inside 25 feet on perhaps the slowest greens PGA Tour players will see all year. He had seven putts at eagle over 36 holes, four on the back nine of his second round. He converted the last one from 6 feet on his final hole, giving him rounds of 69-66 for a three-shot lead over Steve Stricker.
”I hit the ball really well this afternoon,” Johnson said, who typically makes understatements like this when his game is right where he wants it.
Even his lone bogey of the afternoon round was pretty. He crushed his drive with such force on the 17th hole that it ran through the fairway and into a hazard.
”The way he’s playing, the way he’s striking it, the way he’s controlling his golf ball, it’s pretty good right now,” said Bubba Watson, who played with Johnson. ”And I don’t see any different tomorrow from him.”
Three days behind schedule because of high wind, the season started on the day the tournament was supposed to finish. Rickie Fowler made PGA Tour history by hitting the opening shot of the season three times – the first two ”opening rounds” had to be scrapped by 40 mph gusts roaring down the hills.
Johnson returned some degree of normalcy under warm sunshine and strong wind. He simply overpowered Kapalua, twice driving the green on par 4s, one of them into the wind. He was at 11-under 135, and that lead looms even larger with only one round to play.
A weird week led to a strange sensation – Monday was both the start of the tournament and moving day all in one.
Stricker started the long day wondering if he could even finish. About a month ago, he began feeling a shooting pain down his left side when he shifted his weight in that direction, and he was limping badly coming down the hill on the 18th in the middle of his second round. But from 67 yards away, his pitch rode the slope and wind to perfection and dropped for eagle, and his spirits lifted.
Stricker added a pair of birdies on the front nine and had a 67 to reach 138.
”Nobody knows if it’s a muscle with pressure on the sciatic nerve or if there’s a problem with a disk,” Stricker said. ”My back feels great. I don’t feel tight. I don’t feel stiff. Just every time I get over to my left side, I’m getting a shooting pain down my leg. I’m not hitting it full strength and I’m just trying to keep it in front of me and play the smart shots.”
Watson birdied his last hole for a 69 and was four shots out of the lead. Keegan Bradley (69) and Brandt Snedeker (70) were another shot behind. They were the only players within five shots of Johnson.
Even though Johnson had not played the golf course since the pro-am Thursday, there was no lack of familiarity. He arrived a week early, and had six practice rounds on the Plantation Course before the wind arrived. He has a new driver and irons and wanted to make sure he made the adjustment. That doesn’t seem to be a problem.
”I’m pretty pleased with my equipment. I’m pretty pleased with my game right now,” Johnson said.
His only blunder in the afternoon was hitting the ball too well. He ran off three straight birdies late in the second round to pull away, and they were spectacular. He drove the green into the wind on the 292-yard 14th hole for a two-putt birdie, and then smashed a 3-wood 259 yards into the wind and onto the green for another two-putt birdie on the par-5 15th. That was followed by a knockdown shot from 90 yards that the wind blew back to the hole within 4 feet for birdie.
His caddie, Bobby Brown, wanted Johnson to hit 3-wood with the wind at his back on the 17th, but Johnson tried to hit a soft driver. He crushed it, as usual, and it ran through the fairway and into the hazard for his only bogey. He answered with a 5-iron from 243 yards on the downhill 18th for a 6-foot eagle to take command.
It’s tough enough for Stricker to match Johnson’s length on a course like this. Tougher still is doing it when he can barely walk, especially downhill. Stricker isn’t sure what’s wrong with his lower back, or what’s causing the pain. He took a small consolation from the fact it didn’t get worse.
”It felt as crappy on the first hole as the last hole,” he said.
Stricker said at the start of the tournament that he was going into semi-retirement this year, playing only about 10 events. He won’t return to the PGA Tour after this week until the end of February at the Match Play Championship. And he’s not going to roll over for Johnson, regarded as the best American player under 30.
”You’ve just got to go out and play and play your hardest and see what happens,” Stricker said. ”I’ve been in that position where he’s at now. It’s a tough spot. It’s tough to win in front. We’ve got really nothing to lose tomorrow and it makes it a little bit easier for us, but tougher on him.”
Johnson will gladly take his position. He will be trying to win in his sixth straight season since leaving college, the longest streak of any player since Tiger Woods. And he won the last two 54-hole events on the PGA Tour, at the hurricane-shortened Barclays in 2011 and rain-delayed Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 2009.
”Just happened to win those two events,” Johnson said. ”I’ve still got 18 more holes of golf. It wouldn’t matter if it was 72 holes or 54. Tomorrow is still the last round and there’s 18 holes to play, so got to get the job done.”