By Dan Reardon
With the final major of the season — the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Country Club — just a week away and the FedExCup Playoffs soon to follow, individual Tour stops matter beyond just the eventual winner.
Jhonattan Vegas’s win at the RBC Canadian Open is noteworthy for being both a successful defense of last year’s title and a come-from-behind win. His 7-under 65 in the final round tied him with Charley Hoffman, who he then birdied to beat on the first playoff hole. With opportunities to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs down to a few events, players like Vegas, Hoffman, summer comeback story Ian Poulter and Tony Finau improved their status for the season-ending series.
One player who needed no success in Canada for the FedExCup — but who also bears some consideration — is the world’s current No. 1, Dustin Johnson. It might seem strange to look at a player who has three wins on his resume in 2017, and is likely to battle Jordan Spieth for player-of-the-year honors, and question where he is with his game.
Through May, Johnson had the three wins, two additional top 10s and never finished lower than T13 in his eight starts since missing the cut at San Diego. Returning to action after being sidelined for a month by his fall the night before the Masters, he posted very respectable finals of T2, T12 and T13, giving evidence that he had physically recovered from the back injury. But in those three post-Masters starts, he only threatened the lead on Sunday once.
While his body may be sound, his game is still getting back to the level that made him look unbeatable heading into the Masters with three consecutive Tour wins. Until the third round of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Johnson had missed the cut at the Memorial and U.S. Open and never been in the 60s for six straight rounds. A closing 77 in England gave him a three-tournament record of MC, MC and T54.
Last week in Canada his four rounds in the 60s and 17-under total gave him his first top 10 since Wells Fargo and equaled his lowest under-par total for the year. This week at Firestone Johnson could respond to the onslaught by the under-30 crowd by repeating in Ohio and making it three WGC titles in the same year. But DJ has raised expectations so high that anything short of strong contending or a win will move him down the odds list for the PGA Championship.
The driver has never been the prerequisite club at Firestone. And despite his win a year ago and his five overall WGC titles in 31 tries, Johnson’s record at the event has been the weakest of any of those tournaments.
Johnson always remains at or near the top of the list when it comes to distance off the tee, and since his switch to a consistent left-to-right ball flight, his accuracy has ticked up. Because he plays so many short irons into greens from the fairway or the rough, his GIR (Greens in Regulation) stats are solid, ranking first at Glen Abbey last week.
In the three-win stretch this Spring that appeared to separate him from the rest of the top players on the Tour, Johnson added an ability to take advantage of his combined length and accuracy with a putter that converted opportunities regularly. So far that part of his game has not come back since the post-Masters recuperation.
Inside 10 feet, Johnson ranks well outside the top 100. His birdie conversion percentage is currently 33rd on Tour. You can beat a golf course into submission with a great swing and dominant strength. But you can’t win with the weakest club in your bag being the shortest, and Johnson knows that.
At Erin Hills, with the missed cut at the U.S. Open, Johnson talked about his two-day scoring failure. “Yeah, I mean, I didn’t feel like I was putting badly. I felt like I was stroking it pretty good, just wasn’t going in the hole.”
At the Canadian, he returned to that theme. “I hit a lot of really good putts that didn’t go in the hole. I had a lot of looks today, and it’s definitely positive. The golf game is moving in the right direction. I felt like I played really good every day this week. I hit really good putts. Just they weren’t going in the hole.”
Leading into Glen Abbey, CBS Sports golf analyst and former Open Champion Ian Baker-Finch offered a caution to Johnson and the generation of players north of 30 years of age. “There’s a whole bunch of 20, 21-year-olds coming right behind those 23, 24, 25-year-olds. There is a stream of great young talent coming through right now, and the more the young guys in college see players coming out and winning and making millions of dollars, the more they believe they can do it too,” he said. “The guys in their late 30s better go get it soon, because you know their opportunities are going to dry up soon because of this great young talent coming through.”
With Firestone, the PGA and FedEx still to be played, Johnson and his 30-somethings have the opportunity to make the same statement Sergio Garcia made for their age group at the Masters. And so do the kids.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.