Wednesday, January 09, 2013 3:49 am
Johnson gets PGA Tour season off to wild start
By DOUG FERGUSONAP Golf Writer
Johnson believes there are no limits to what he can achieve in golf, as long as he keeps mistakes to a minimum and makes better decisions.
And even that doesn't always stop him.
With a pair of wild tee shots mixed in with a chip-in for eagle, Johnson won the PGA Tour's season opener on Tuesday by closing with a 5-under 68 for a four-shot victory over Steve Stricker, extending his streak of winning every season in the six years since he left college.
Don't be fooled by the score or the margin. This was a lot closer than it needed to be.
"It was nowhere near ho-hum," Johnson said.
He made sure of that by staying aggressive even when he had a five-shot lead with 11 holes to play in the final round Tuesday.
Johnson took a big swing with the driver on the par-5 ninth and the ball vanished into high grass, costing him two shots. He still managed only a bogey, however, because he walked back to the tee with the same club and hammered that one down the left side, far enough that he could reach the green in two.
On the 13th hole, coming off a birdie to rebuild his lead to three shots, Johnson blasted driver to the left into bushes and tall grass, leading to another double bogey. That cut the lead to one shot, and when Johnson reached the 14th tee, he didn't hesitate.
Out came the driver.
"I was like, `Dude, what are you doing?' He took out driver on a couple holes and he let me back in the game," Stricker said. "We're walking up 15 and I was like, `Why don't you take iron out, make me have to make birdies instead of you hitting it in the trees and opening it up for me?' And he's like, `Yeah, yeah, I know.'
"But he's got a lot of talent," Stricker said. "It looks like very little fear in him, 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."
That it was.
Stricker was safely in the fairway on the 14th, which plays dead into the wind with bunkers down the right side and big trouble even farther to the right, the kind of grass where golf balls are never found. The prudent shot would be a 3-iron to leave a short pitch to the green. Johnson smashed his tee shot, a tight draw, that rolled up to the green and fell back. No problem. He chipped in for eagle, Stricker smiled and slapped hands with him, and Johnson was on his way.
Johnson hit another delicate pitch-and-run up a dangerous slope on the 15th to match Stricker's birdie and stay three ahead.
It was only fitting that this weird, windy week ended with such a wild ride.
The tournament was supposed to end Monday. That's when it started after gusts topping 40 mph forced officials to scrap the first round on Friday and Sunday, with no golf played on Saturday. The tournament was reduced to 54 holes.
Once it started, it ended about 29 hours later.
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.
"I've got a long way to go but I will be ready for the Champions Tour," Johnson said, referring to 54-hole event on the 50-and-old circuit.
It was only appropriate that a tournament delayed by a powerful wind was won by a guy who overpowered the Plantation Course at Kapalua.
"It definitely got close out there today," Johnson said. "Sometimes I hit a couple of bad drives, but I was always able to bounce back and do what I needed to do to stay out front."
He never felt truly in command until the final two holes, which are downhill. Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, was spotted with Johnson all week and watched from the gallery as he finished without drama at 16-under 203.
Johnson won for the sixth straight season since leaving college at Coastal Carolina, the longest streak since Tiger Woods won in 14 straight years. Only Phil Mickelson (nine) has a longer active streak of most consecutive years with a PGA Tour win.
Johnson has all the tools for greatness, though his decision-making remains open to criticism. Instead of hitting an iron off the 13th tee - it's tough to get it close to the pin even with a short iron - he went with driver and invited all sorts of trouble. Remember, this is the guy who lost a three-shot lead in the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by rushing through wild shots in a round of 82. He lost a shot at another major by not realizing he was in a bunker on the last hole at Whistling Straits.
"I've done it enough times that it doesn't really bother me anymore," Johnson said. "I've been in this situation enough now and I've made enough double bogeys in my life. You know, it's just another hole, and you've got a lot more holes to go where you can make it up. Fortunately, today I made a double and then the next hole I made eagle. That definitely was the turning point of the day, because walking off 13, I was like, `Oh, no, here it goes again.'
"But I came right back, focused and hit two great shots."
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 hilliest course on the tour for 54 holes in two days. He closed with a 69.
"I knew it was going to be tough, but I gave it a 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.