ATLANTA — Sometime after Paul Azinger stopped winning and before he went on television to talk about those who were, he described pressure in the simplest terms. He said players only choked for cash or prestige.
The FedEx Cup was a little of both for Dustin Johnson.
But it was mostly about prestige.
The PGA Tour will have bigger problems than it realizes if players aren’t moved by winning $15 million in a day. Never mind that Johnson is closing in on becoming only the fifth player to top $70 million in career earnings, which doesn’t include more than double from endorsements and appearance fees. Money still matters.
This was about more.
Johnson has no bigger fan than Wayne Gretzky, his de facto father-in-law. The Great One summed up Johnson’s victory in the Tour Championship with a short text Monday night: “It was a big one for credibility.”
That was true for Johnson, whose career can be defined as much by how often he wins as how often he doesn’t.
And in some respects, it was credibility for the FedEx Cup.
The PGA Tour wrapped up 14 years of its version of a postseason, which has been referred to as everything from contrived to a money grab. Arguments can still be made for both. But it’s important to the players. And for all but two players from the 30-man field at East Lake – Ryan Palmer and Kevin Na – it’s all they know.
Plus, it helped to have someone like Johnson putting it so high on his list of priorities.
He was annoyed when he didn’t win in 2016 as the No. 1 seed when he had a share of the 54-hole lead and closed with a 73. Johnson had to wait in the clubhouse to see his fate decided by a three-man playoff among Rory McIlroy, Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell. As long as McIlroy didn’t win, Johnson would be the FedEx Cup champion.
Just his luck, McIlroy won.
Johnson spoke openly about the FedEx Cup at the start of each postseason every year since then. He relishes being No. 1 in any category, and it bothered him to see names on the FedEx Cup trophy that started with Tiger Woods and included McIlroy, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose.
All are major champions. All but Furyk and Stenson have reached No. 1 in the world.
No, it’s not the same as winning a major, and Johnson is still woefully underachieving in that category with one U.S. Open. He will get two more cracks before the end of the year at Winged Foot in two weeks and at Augusta National in November.
For now, the FedEx Cup was a big box to tick, especially the manner in which he finished.
Johnson responded to pressure, which is rare for him because he rarely faces it when he wins. Twelve of his 23 wins on the PGA Tour have been by three shots or more, including an 11-shot victory at the start of this postseason.
With his five-shot lead down to two on Monday at East Lake, Johnson holed a 20-foot par putt after Xander Schauffele missed his par attempt from a similar range.
Thomas birdied the 16th in the group ahead to cut the deficit to two, and Johnson hit what he said was his best shot on the back nine – a sand wedge out of a deep fairway bunker that narrowly cleared a bunker fronting the green and led to an easy par when nothing was coming easily.
There’s something about the way Johnson wins that makes golf look easier than it does for everyone else. This was a struggle and the nerves were noticeable without being obvious. He says he was nervous because it meant something.
Johnson now has six FedEx Cup postseason victories. He is the only player to win each of the four World Golf Championships. He has won every year except 2014 since he joined the PGA Tour in 2008.
Perhaps more impressive is to consider him in context with Phil Mickelson.
Johnson has 23 wins in his 13th year on the PGA Tour. Mickelson also had 23 wins (and one major) in his 13th year on tour. Lefty won while in college, never had to go through three stages of Q-school and turned pro in the summer of 1992.
Mickelson never reached No. 1 in the world. He never won a money title of PGA Tour player of the year. His name is missing from the FedEx Cup trophy. Then again, Johnson never had to contend with Tiger Woods in his prime.
This isn’t the best Johnson played, but it’s not far off.
Johnson thought back to the spring of 2017, when he first rose to No. 1 in the world by winning at Riviera, Mexico City and the Match Play in consecutive starts. He was the overwhelming favorite going into the Masters until he slipped in his socks and fell down the stairs at his rental home and withdrew.
“It’s getting there,” Johnson said. “I think I was playing really good then. Obviously, I’m playing very well now. I feel like I can play better, though. At times, I’m firing on all cylinders. But there’s time where I’m not. I’m playing good enough, though, to where I can keep it where I still can give myself a chance to win.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.