It is fitting that the FedEx Cup playoffs started with one of the great playoffs in recent memory. Dustin Johnson took The Northern Trust on Sunday in a one-hole playoff over Jordan Spieth by hitting two of the more memorable shots of his incredibly dynamic career.
Spieth, who came in having closed nine of his last 10 leads after 54 holes, opened a five-stroke margin on Johnson after leading by just three on the first tee box. Spieth birdied two of the first five holes, and it looked like he was going to dart away from the jungle cat before Johnson even had a chance to lick his lips.
A double on the sixth undid him, though, and Johnson never made a mistake. The four-time winner this season did not make a bogey all day. After another bogey from Spieth at the ninth, Johnson let his prey come all the way back to him before pouncing.
Johnson birdied the ninth and 10th holes and the two were tied with nobody else in sight. Two birdies each over the next six holes set up a dramatic, if birdie-free, final two. Each blocked his shot on the lengthy par-3 17th into the sand, and each got up and down. But Spieth had to hit a 20-footer for his par. As Spieth is wont to do late in big-time tournaments, he nailed it.
Johnson had to lay up on the 475-yard par-4 18th because he pushed his drive in the rough. His third shot, from 86 yards, settled to just under 20 feet as well, and he knew he'd need that for par and to get into a playoff with Spieth, who had a tidy three feet for his own par.
D.J. flipped the script on golf's leading man, and the cup on No. 18 obliged. He willed one home and gave a right hook more violent than anything we saw in Mayweather-McGregor. All Spieth could do was shake his head and smile. Back to the 18th tee where an unspeakable thing was about to take place.
Spieth won the lottery and hit first. With the adrenaline flowing, he pumped a 314-yard drive on a nice line. What Johnson did next nearly pulled me out of my seat. I thought he'd rope-hooked his drive off the property when it left the club face. In reality, he'd just taken the "I'm the greatest driver of the golf ball in the history of this sport" line off the tee and potentially broken ProTracer in the process.
His preposterously long drive left him with 94 yards into the 475-yard par-4 finishing hole.
"It was nice in the playoff here," he told CBS Sports' Dottie Pepper. "The wind kind of switched and I could cover the water. It was a little bit easier coming in with a 60-degree on 18."
Johnson stuck his approach to three feet with a 60-degree wedge, and a last gasp from Spieth came up wanting. The inevitable Spieth steamroll had been reversed. Johnson chased him down with an outrageous putt in regulation and then he ran him over in the playoff.
"It was a lot of fun," Johnson added later. "Jordan is a great player. It was a tough day, but I feel like -- even on the front nine -- I hit the ball really, really well. A lot of great shots and a lot of good looks at birdie. Hit a lot of good putts. Just didn't go in. But I did make it when they counted there on 18. It was down a little, breaking right-to-left, and felt like it wasn't going to turn but finally went in."
It was an explosive close to the first week of the FedEx Cup playoffs, and now I'm not sure where we go from here. The field for next week's event has been trimmed from 125 to 100, which should make for another terrific winner, but I don't know if this week can be topped. I'd be game for an encore, though.
"I feel like the game is finally back in form like it was leading into the Masters," Johnson told Pepper. "I feel like I'm swinging everything really well. Got a lot of control over the golf ball. I'm feeling really good. Obviously getting the win here today gives me a lot of confidence going into next week and the rest of the playoffs."
As Spieth found out on Sunday, that's terrifying. Spieth insisted on Sunday that he didn't lose the tournament, D.J. won it. And he's right. Spieth shot four straight rounds in the 60s, but he got overtaken at the very end. It was a nice reminder that D.J.'s gear, when he goes to it, is something special.
It was also a reminder of the thin line between winning and losing. If Johnson's putt on 18 in regulation spins the other way and doesn't drop, the narrative is quite different. But it twirled home, and he has PGA Tour victory No. 16 in the bag with three runs at No. 17 over the next month.
We got a great one to start this FedEx Cup playoff run. The No. 1 player in the world chasing somebody I think will go down as one of the best to ever play the game at a tremendous course on a beautiful day. It feels like I've said this 10 times this season, but I'm not sure how it gets much better than that. Grade: A+
Rory McIlroy (T34): McIlroy just never could get it going. His best round of the week was a 2-under 68 on Friday which helped him comfortably make the cut. He stalled on the weekend, though, and finished outside the top 25 for the first time in four events.
"My game isn't where it needs to be," said McIlroy on Sunday. "But it's OK. Conditions were tricky out there. This afternoon the course played quite firm and fairways were bouncing out a lot and sort of, yeah, it was hard to hit fairways, hard to hit greens.
"The game's just a little ... my battling qualities, that's all I really have right now. Sort of a little inconsistent with my swing and sort of with everything else. Just a matter of trying to go out there and put the best possible rounds together and see where that leaves me. Grade: B-
Rickie Fowler (T20): After a 68-66 start, Fowler disappointed on the weekend with a 74-70 finish. He was a little off with everything but the driver as he finished outside the top 25 in strokes gained in every category except off the tee (where he finished No. 11). I picked Fowler to win this week (and win the FedEx Cup Playoffs), and I thought we would see more on Saturday and Sunday from him. He'll still be in the thick of it over the next month, but this would have been a strong first step to his first FedEx Cup win. Grade: B
Justin Thomas (T6): In Thomas' first start since his win at the PGA Championship, he finished in the top 10 and kept himself squarely in the hunt for the FedEx Cup. Thomas struggled with the putter this week in a way he didn't at Quail Hollow. He was No. 7 in the field in strokes gained from tee to green but outside the top 40 in putting. I still think he'll factor in pretty heavily to one of the next three playoff events. Grade: A
Hideki Matsuyama (MC): Golf is a funny game. Matsuyama came in as arguably the best player alive over the last 12 months and then he went out and missed the cut at The Northern Trust by a stroke. He'll only slip a couple of spots in the FedEx Cup points race, and as of now he still controls his own destiny for the $10 million. But he'll need something better next week at the Dell Technologies Championship. Grade: F