“I was hoping it wasn’t going to be that much fun,” he said, adding: “It’s very difficult holding a lead on a difficult golf course when the guy you’re playing with goes bogey-free and doesn’t even really sniff a bogey and shoots four under. You know, hats off to D. J.”
The 19-hole duel on Sunday between Johnson and Spieth, who were paired, provided delayed gratification for all the golf fans who had expected to watch them play at least 18 extra holes at the 2015 United States Open — until Johnson missed a four-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to hand Spieth the victory.
Johnson, 33, won the 2016 United States Open for his lone major victory. After winning three consecutive starts between mid-February and late March, Johnson entered this year’s Masters as the prohibitive favorite, but he hurt his back in a fall on stairs and had to withdraw.
He would not regain his pre-Masters form until this tournament, the first of four events in the FedEx Cup playoffs. It was played on a course with plush fairways, egg-white sand traps and clean sightlines that call to mind Augusta National.
“It’s been a tough road to get back to where I feel like my game’s able to compete out here,” Johnson said, adding, “This week’s the first week that I felt like my game was in really good shape and is back to where it was, where I feel like I’ve got complete control over it.”
Spieth, 24, this year’s British Open champion, began the day with a three-stroke lead, which he extended to five after five holes. Nine of the prior 10 times that Spieth entered the final round with at least a share of the lead, he won. The lone exception was the 2016 Masters, where Spieth gave up a five-stroke lead on the back nine.
On Sunday, he again saw a five-stroke lead evaporate, again with a tee shot that landed in the water. It happened on the par-3 sixth hole and led to a double bogey. He gave up more ground on No. 9 with a bogey to Johnson’s birdie 3. Johnson drained a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 10 to draw even with Spieth, who down the stretch was hitting 7- or 8-irons into the firm greens at Glen Oaks while Johnson needed only wedges.
If Johnson unnerves competitors with his driver, Spieth unsettles them with his putter. After they traded birdies on No. 13, Spieth made an 8-foot birdie at 14 to regain the lead. Johnson tied him with an 18-foot birdie on the par-3 15th. On the 17th, Spieth sank a 19-footer for par after his tee shot had found a bunker. It appeared he would seize the win in regulation at 18 when he stroked his first putt, from 76 feet, to within 2 feet, guaranteeing par.
Johnson had run into trouble on 18: His drive found the rough, and he laid up with his second shot rather than aiming for the elevated green. His third shot, from the fairway, was his worst wedge of the day. When Johnson curled in the 17-footer for par, he punched the air. It was an uncharacteristic display of emotion for Johnson, who typically conveys as much expression as an actor who has had one too many face-lifts.
“A lot of my wins, usually I’ve just had to two-putt on 18 or had an easy go at it,” said Johnson, who has 16 PGA Tour titles. “This was the first one I’ve really had to work at. So it was nice.”
Spieth is as demonstrative as Johnson is implacable, but his face betrayed nothing when Johnson’s par putt fell.
“I thought it was missing high, but his body language was hanging in,” Spieth said. “I’m like, ‘Does that really still have a chance?’ And it came around and lipped in, and my initial thought was ‘I just did that exact same thing to him the hole before.’”
By the time the players signed their scorecards and were driven in carts back to the 18th tee, the wind, like the momentum, had shifted in Johnson’s favor. The hole was now playing downwind, and Johnson chased his monster drive with a wedge shot that stopped 4 feet from the pin. Spieth’s 7-iron approach landed on the back fringe, and he missed his 25-foot birdie putt. All the work that Johnson has put into improving his short game, including an extra 30-minute wedge session after his third round, paid off.
“I didn’t lose the tournament,” Spieth said. “He won it.”
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