OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. (AP) — For a guy who can make golf look easy, Dustin Johnson can’t remember a victory more difficult.
He was five shots behind Jordan Spieth through five holes of the final round at The Northern Trust. He caught up to him in five holes, setting up a classic duel between two of the biggest names in golf that came down to the very end at Glen Oaks Club.
And then it became hard again for Johnson.
He turned away in disgust when his tee shot on the 18th hole peeled away to the right, up a slope and into thick grass. Johnson couldn’t figure out how to get it out of a nasty lie to an elevated green guarded by two deep bunkers, so he surprised even Spieth by laying up and trusting his wedge game. Only when he climbed the hill and saw his ball 18 feet from the hole — Johnson thought it would be closer — did he wonder if this wouldn’t be his day.
“I knew I was going to have to make it when I walked up there,” Johnson said. “I thought I hit a better shot than that. I thought my par putt was going to be much closer. It ended up being the right distance, I guess. I mean, it went in.”
That was the moment when Johnson did to Spieth what Spieth seems to do to everybody. He made a big putt .
The ball swirled into the back of the cup, and they were headed for a sudden-death playoff, a bonus hole for the fans who were treated to a great show in the FedEx Cup playoff opener that starts the chase for the $10 million prize.
And that allowed Johnson to make good on a pledge.
Walking off the 18th tee in regulation, he had told Austin Johnson, his brother and caddie, that if he could get into a playoff, he would take on the water down the left side of the 18th fairway instead of playing a more conservative shot out to the right.
By the time they got to the 18th tee for the playoff, the wind had switched.
“I was hoping he was not going to notice that,” Spieth said with a smile.
No such luck, and it might not have mattered. Johnson smashed his drive so far that it cleared the entire lake and settled in the far end of the fairway 341 yards away.
“At that point,” Spieth said, “I have to try and make par best I can, and I’m just hoping. I’m at such a disadvantage.”
Spieth hit a 7-iron that looked great until it rolled out to the back collar, 25 feet away. Johnson hit a 60-degree wedge for the second time on the 18th hole, with one big difference. Moments earlier, it was his third shot in a desperate attempt to make par. This time, it was his second shot after the longest drive on the 18th all week. He stuffed that to just inside 4 feet, and when Spieth missed, Johnson calmly rapped in his short birdie putt.
He smiled. He lightly pumped his fist, as he does for just about every win. And then he breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
“That was the first time that I really had to work hard for my win,” he said.
In his 16 victories on the PGA Tour, only one other time had he made a birdie on the final hole to win by one shot. That was at Pebble Beach in 2010 when a simple birdie from the bunker on the par-5 18th gave him a one-shot victory over David Duval and J.B. Holmes.
In that respect, it felt great.
Sweeter still was the timing of the victory, his fourth of the year but the first since he injured his back from slipping down the stairs in his socks and having to withdraw from the Masters the following day.
“It was a big win, for sure, especially after the start I got off to his year,” Johnson said, alluding to three straight victories against strong fields. “It’s been a tough road to get back to where I feel like my game is able to compete out here again.”
For Spieth, the disappointment of losing a 54-hole lead of at least two shots for the first time was tempered by the show they put on.
The one shot he regrets was on the par-3 sixth hole, when he had a five-shot lead and thought he hit the right club in a confusing wind over the water. It came up a fraction short, caromed off the rock wall and into the water and led to double bogey. Another two-shot swing on the ninth hole — Johnson made his first birdie and Spieth missed the green in a tough spot to the left — made it a game again.
Spieth matched birdies with Johnson even though he was 35 yards behind him off the tee at the par-5 13th. He pulled away with an 8-foot birdie putt on the next hole. And facing his first deficit of the day, Spieth made an 18-foot par save on the 17th.
He just couldn’t save himself against the sheer power on the last hole, and the world’s No. 1 player who shot 66 in the final round and didn’t make a bogey over the last 29 holes of the tournament.
“I didn’t lose the tournament,” Spieth said. “He won it.”