ATLANTA – The most surreal season in the history of the PGA Tour will end Monday at East Lake after 12 months, one pandemic, 38 events, 11 official tournaments either postponed or cancelled, and an untold amount of uncertainty.
While a truncated baseball season is poised for an outlier (we’re looking at you, Miami Marlins) and a postseason bubble is doing strange things to the normally predictable NBA world, the Tour, with one lap remaining, is leaning hard into chalk at the big finish. For Monday’s final round at the Tour Championship, the leaderboard will be defined by Nos. 1 (Dustin Johnson), 2 (Jon Rahm), 3 (Justin Thomas) and 5 (Collin Morikawa) in the world rankings scattered between first and fifth on the leaderboard.
In a strange twist, those three months of quarantine, a break that is threatening pandemonium in other sports, only fueled the status quo in golf.
Consider that when play was halted in March, Johnson, who will take what looks alarmingly like an insurmountable five-stroke lead into the final round at the finale, was 111th in the FedExCup standings and had posted just a single top-10 finish. Neither his swing nor his body was right when the season was shelved, but that time tucked away in south Florida turned out to be just what the 36-year-old needed and he emerged in the post-quarantine world as the game’s undisputed best.
He won his third event following the restart at the Travelers Championship, an outing that included middle rounds of 64-61, and after hiccups at the Memorial and 3M Open, he’s been at his intimidating best.
Unless Johnson reverts to the guy who managed to hit just 7 of his first 28 fairways this week, it won’t be the nail-biter officials hoped for in Year 2 of the strokes-based scoring experiment. But if anyone was going to run away with the cup, it would be DJ.
If you’re going to spot the world’s best player a lead before he’s even pulled into the parking lot, it’s best to keep your expectations in check. That it’s Johnson sitting atop the pack is particularly daunting considering he boat-raced the field at the playoff opener by 11 shots. That’s not a typo – 11 shots!
Sunday night will mark the fourth consecutive start dating to last month’s PGA Championship that Johnson will sleep on a 54-hole lead, and although he’s technically 1-for-3 in that run, getting two-and-a-half shots a side should help ease the anticipation.
“If he does what he normally does, it's going to be almost impossible to catch him,” said Xander Schauffele, who would be leading the event at 11 under, three shots ahead of Johnson, without the built-in, strokes-based cushion. “It's DJ. We've seen him do it for 20 plus years now, and I just have to try and be better.”
It was a common take among those with a punching chance on Monday. Beating Johnson in full flight under normal circumstances is a zero-sum proposition, particularly this version of DJ, but it has been done.
At last week’s BMW Championship, Rahm started the final round three shots behind DJ and forced extra holes thanks to a closing 64. The Spaniard beat Johnson with a 66-footer for birdie on the first playoff hole.
“I had to do something really, really unique last week to be able to have a chance. Ten under on that golf course on the weekend is unheard of,” said Rahm, who is alone in fourth place and six shots off the lead. “I'm going to need something really special tomorrow.”
Rahm and Co. could also use some help from Johnson, but that doesn’t seem likely. His near-miss at the PGA Championship included a closing 68, and last week he finished with a 67, which is not exactly what one would consider Sunday struggles.
The field was gifted a glimmer of hope on Day 2, when Johnson struggled mightily off the tee and hit just two fairways. It took him just four holes to top that number on Sunday, and he finished the day an impressive 11-of-14 off the tee thanks to a post-round session with swing coach Claude Harmon III.
“From the first swing, I hit the shot I wanted to and from there I felt like all the tee shots I hit were really good and they were starting where I wanted them to with the right shape,” said Johnson, who is 43 under par in his last 11 rounds on Tour. “Even the couple drives I missed were still in the fairway, which was obviously a sign that I'm swinging well.”
Historically, it’s not what Johnson says; it's how he says it. Even with 22 Tour titles, he’s never been one to pound his chest. Instead, when all of the tumblers fall effortlessly in place, he simply allows the scorecard to tell the tale.
“He's not just trying to win, he's trying to beat everybody by 10 shots,” said Harris English, who finished second to Johnson at TPC Boston.
After the strangest of seasons, the Tour finds sanity, if not genuine drama, in the familiar – DJ rolling to another victory.