By Dan Reardon
When Tiger Woods was at the peak of his talents, he brought together a combination that had never been seen in professional golf and likely hasn’t been seen since. It is easy to forget that young Tiger had length off the tee that separated him significantly from almost every other top player on Tour. The concept of ‘Tiger-proofing’ a golf course was a direct response to his length through the bag.
At the same time, Woods possessed the greatest package of short-game skills on Tour. Starting as early as his late amateur career, Woods could erase mistakes with imagination, touch and focus like no one else. It was a two-pack that allowed him to own the Tour.
This past week at Crooked Stick and the BMW Championship, Dustin Johnson had a taste of what Woods felt like for at least five years of his career.
DJ, like Tiger, has separation length from most on Tour. Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy have the horsepower, but only Day has shown that mastery over a stretch of time. And with the novelty of his new Spider Mallet putter in Indiana, at least for a week, Johnson converted scoring chances when they presented themselves and erased more mistakes with his putter than we have seen before.
Johnson put together a ranking combination he had never done before. For the week, he led the field in both driving distance and putting. This year he has taken strides to eliminate a tendency to squander his advantage on the tee with inconsistency from the fairways. At both his U.S. Open win at Oakmont, and again at Crooked Stick, he previewed what he might become.
“Yeah, the big difference is my wedge game. My wedge game’s improved a lot. So I know if I’m driving it well and hitting it in the fairway and get a wedge in my hand, I’m going to have good looks at birdies.” Johnson posted 24 birdies and three eagles, aided by ‘lift clean and place’ rules from the short grass. His 23-under total was only second to his -24 in his 2014 win at HSBC.
Lined up behind Johnson going into the $10 million chase in Atlanta are Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Paul Casey. Any of them would take the FedExCup prize with a win at East Lake. Casey, for the second straight week, was in the hunt on Sunday, finishing second to Johnson at BMW. Reed has been the most consistent through all three events. Scott contends but lately has shown an inability to win. Day is a question mark after a Sunday withdrawal with back issues.
There was also some intrigue playing out at the 30-player cutline for the Tour Championship. Rickie Fowler, who was on a dual mission last week — qualifying for Atlanta and impressing Davis Love for a Ryder Cup selection — nearly failed both.
Fowler started the week in Indiana in apparently safe position at 22nd in the FedExCup rankings but put himself in immediate jeopardy with an opening 75. Even with that, anything at par or better on Sunday would have secured a top 30 spot. But he could do no better than 1-over 73 as one of the early groups out. He then had to wait and watch as he slid down the ladder. South African Charl Schwartzel put him on the bubble with a 64 that vaulted him 13 spots.
Fowler finally needed assistance from any of a handful of players who could push Schwartzel out of his T4 standing at -12. Adam Scott, Ryan Palmer, Matt Kuchar and J.B. Holmes all had a chance. None of them could get to solo fourth at -13, and Fowler missed by less than a full point.
Apparently Love had baked Fowler into his lineup before BMW and added him to the team along with Holmes and Kuchar. Bubba Watson now sits on the bubble for two weeks, with East Lake his final audition.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 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.