KAPALUA, Hawaii — Coastal Carolina alumnus Dustin Johnson ended a windy week with a wild ride Tuesday that carried him to the first win of the PGA Tour season.
Despite hitting two drives into native areas that cost him three shots, Johnson never lost the lead at Kapalua. He closed with a 5-under 68 for a four-shot victory in the Tournament of Champions, though it was up for grabs with five holes remaining.
Stricker came within a fraction of an inch of tying for the lead until his birdie putt peeled away from the cup on the 13th hole, which Johnson chopped up for a double bogey. With only a one-shot lead, Johnson pitched in from 50 feet in front of the 14th green to restore his three-shot lead, and Stricker never challenged him after that.
And so, the tournament that didn’t start until the fourth day because of a powerful wind finally ended with a guy who overpowered the Plantation Course.
Johnson, who finished at 16-under 203, won for the sixth straight season. Only Phil Mickelson with nine straight years has a longer active streak of most consecutive seasons with a PGA Tour victory.
“He’s very athletic, and he’s just going to continue to get better,” Stricker said. “It’s fun to watch. You never know what he’s going to do, and he’s got a lot of talent.”
Johnson also added a peculiar footnote to his record. He now has won the last three PGA Tour events reduced to 54 holes because of weather – rain at Pebble Beach in 2009, a hurricane at The Barclays in 2011 and gusts that topped 40 mph in Hawaii from a freak weather pattern that led to a bizarre season opener.
Johnson moved to No. 12 in the world ranking.
The tournament ended just over 29 hours after it started. Then again, 54 holes were all that was needed to show who was playing the best golf.
“It gives me a lot of confidence going into this year,” Johnson said.
Not since Tiger Woods has a player gone straight from college to winning in his first six seasons on tour.
Stricker put up a good fight on one good leg. He has been feeling a shooting pain down his left side on every shot and limped his way around the most mountainous course on tour for 54 holes in two days. He closed with a 69.
“I knew it was going to be tough, but I gave it run for a little while,” Stricker said.
Brandt Snedeker went 5 under during a four-hole stretch on the front nine to get within one shot of the lead until he closed out the front nine with three straight bogeys. Snedeker had a 69 and finished alone in third, six shots behind. He moved to No. 8 in the world ranking, second only to Woods among Americans.
Masters champion Bubba Watson (71) and former PGA champion Keegan Bradley (70) were another shot back.
Johnson overcame the first threat from Snedeker with back-to-back birdies, and just like that, he was ahead by five and looked unbeatable. And he won by four shots, which would appear to be an easy day of work in paradise.
“It was nowhere near ho-hum,” Johnson said. “I had to really fight hard.”
And he had no one to blame but himself.
His tee shot on the par-5 ninth sailed right into a patch of knee-high grass and short trees, and Johnson never found it. Without showing any fear, he stepped up and smashed another driver, and then reached the green in two dead into the wind and salvaged a bogey. He nearly drove the 12th green downwind for a birdie and a three-shot lead over Stricker, and that’s when the fun began.
Johnson hit driver on the 13th and pulled it enough to land into a bunker and tumble into a native area of high grass, trees and plenty more.
“We found a shoe, some sunglasses, about five or six other balls,” said Stricker, who joined in the search. “There might have been a guy living up in the tree.”
Johnson found the ball, but it took two swings to get it back in play, and he had to two-putt from about 50 feet just to escape with double bogey. He thought his lead was gone as he watched Stricker, so smooth with a putter in hand, stand over his 20-foot birdie putt. It turned away at the last second.
With trouble to the right on the 14th, Johnson was predictable as ever. He pulled driver.
“He hit a couple of wayward drives and opened the door me a little bit, and then he stepped up there with a driver again [on 14], and I’m like, ‘OK.’ But then he piped it, and chips it in,” Stricker said with a smile. “Most guys would have been pulling out an iron or some utility club. It’s amazing that he even did that, to tell you the truth.”
The eagle chip was the end for Stricker.
Johnson hit a beautiful pitch up the dangerous slope on the 15th for a short birdie to match Stricker’s 10-foot birdie, and he made no mistakes coming in.
“It looks like very little fear in him,” Stricker said. “Because he’ll hit one a little crooked, but he’ll pull out that driver again and try it again. And he pulled it off, especially at 14. That was the deciding shot and chip for the tournament. Expect a lot of good things as he continues his career.”
And don’t expect it to ever be dull.
Johnson headed to Oahu for the Sony Open, which starts in two days. Stricker was headed down the coast of Maui for three days of vacation with his wife and two daughters before going home to Wisconsin for the next six weeks. He is going into semi-retirement, playing only about 10 times this year. And he wants to fix his left leg. More than anything, he’d like to win again and come back to Kapalua, even if that means having to take on Johnson again.