Johnson weaves his magic to win in Hawaii


Only someone as athletic and powerful as Dustin Johnson could take the hilly, 7,411-yard, par 73 Plantation Course and turn it into a par-three contest. And only someone like Johnson, whose personality is as placid as the west Maui winds are not, could describe as “nice” the blustery conditions that delayed the start of the Tournament of Champions for three days.

“I didn’t really have any anxiety,” Johnson said.

When the wind-shortened event finally started, he ran away from the winners-only field, posting a 54-hole score of 16-under-par 203 to win by four strokes over Steve Stricker in the first Monday start and Tuesday finish since the event relocated here in 1999.

Johnson, a former Coastal Carolina standout, closed with a five-under 68 to win his seventh PGA Tour title. At 28, he became the first tour player since Tiger Woods to win at least one tournament each of his first six years out of college.

Front-row seat

Stricker, the defending champion, was paired with Johnson in the final round, affording him a front-row seat for the biggest show near pounding surf.

“It’s fun to watch,” said Stricker, who closed with a 69. “You never know what he’s going to do, and he’s got a lot of talent, a lot of ability.”

Stricker’s jaw dropped on the 12th hole, a downwind 420-yard par four, when Johnson nearly drove the green with a 405-yard blast. Stricker, whose drive had travelled 235 yards, caught up with Roger Maltbie, a five-time tour winner who was following the twosome as a roving reporter for NBC, and asked with a wry grin, “Did you have that in your day, Roge?”

When Johnson’s drives are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are in the woods.

On the 13th, the smart play for Johnson would have been to use a three iron off the tee. He took his driver out without a second thought and hooked the ball into vegetation behind a fairway bunker.

“Walking off that tee, I wasn’t too happy with myself,” said Johnson, whose expression never changed.

Stricker, who had put his drive in the fairway, joined the search for Johnson’s ball. They found sunglasses, a shoe and enough mud-caked balls to fill a few sleeves before finding what they were looking for.

After giving a hand to Stricker, who had trouble climbing out of the bushes because of shooting pain in his left leg caused by a pinched nerve, Johnson surveyed his options. He had a terrible lie, but he thought he could punch it into the fairway. He tried, but the ball ended up back in the vegetation.

He put his third shot on the fairway, found the green with his fourth shot and two-putted from 41 feet for a double bogey. Stricker could have drawn even with Johnson, but his 22-foot birdie effort slid a foot by the hole.

“I wanted that one,” said Stricker, who could have pressed Johnson on the front nine but missed birdie putts at the first and third holes and three-putted the fifth for a par.

The 45-year-old Stricker finished two strokes ahead of Brandt Snedeker and four ahead of Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley.

Ryder Cup team-mates

After signing his scorecard, Bradley knelt behind the 18th green and waited to congratulate Johnson. They spent a week as Ryder Cup team-mates, and are a lot alike, the fiery Bradley said, even if they appear as different as a gale is from a zephyr.

Bradley gets so excited on the golf course he has been known to hyperventilate, while Johnson carries himself as if on cruise control. What they have in common is a cutthroat competitiveness.

“I think Dustin kind of comes across as a guy who’s just kind of going with the flow, but he’s super competitive,” Bradley said. “He’s a very fearless player, which is what you need to be on this course.”

Johnson’s intrepid spirit moved him to take out his driver on the 14th tee, never mind that he had just made his worst swing of the week with the club. His drive into the wind on the hole, which was playing 292 yards, landed in the fairway, 52 feet from the pin.

“He stepped up with a driver again and I’m like, ‘Okay,’” said Stricker, known for his crafty course management. “Most guys would have been pulling out an iron or some utility club and hitting it down the left and going from there.”

Johnson was not quite through with his magic show. He holed the chip for an eagle to make the double bogey effectively disappear and get back to 14-under par, three strokes ahead of Stricker. “The chip on 14 was definitely the biggest shot,” Johnson said. “Maybe the drive; the drive set it all up.”

The most flustered Johnson looked all day was after his round, when asked the nature of his relationship with Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky and actress Janet Jones, who was in his gallery.

Johnson blushed and said, “Does that really matter?”

For players retracing the golfing footsteps of Woods, everything is in play.

New York Times

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