HARTFORD, Conn. – Reigning Travelers Championship titleholder Dustin Johnson is putting up Tiger Woods numbers.
In his last 100 starts, Johnson has 16 victories among 55 Top-10 finishes, including a one-stroke win in the 2020 Travelers Championship and a two-shot victory Sunday in the European Tour’s Saudi International, which has become an annual annuity for the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Not only has Johnson earned $1,505,079 in prize money in a first-second-first record the past three years, he has received lucrative seven-figure appearance fees not allowed on the PGA Tour.
Johnson started the final round with a two-stroke lead but was caught on the back nine by Tony Finau, who has consistently challenged the past few years but still has only one PGA Tour victory. But after Finau birdied the 11th, 12th and 13th holes to get a share of the lead, he bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17 and Johnson stayed steady through a closing 2-under-par 68 for a 72-hole total of 15-under 265. That was two less than Finau and Justin Rose at wind-swept Royal Greens Golf Club located in one of the classic names on the planet, King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. It gave Johnson four wins and three seconds in his last nine starts worldwide.
Johnson, who won the event in 2018 and finished second to Graeme McDowell last year, bogeyed No. 16 to fall only one ahead of Finau, but a massive drive and pitch to 2 feet set up a decisive birdie at the 17th hole for the man who won his second major championship in the Masters in November.
“I saw the leaderboard a little bit; the guys were playing well, but I kept giving myself a lot of chances,” Johnson told Sky Sports. “I didn’t hole many of them but finally holed a really nice putt on 13. And 17 was a really nice birdie, hit a great drive there and a nice little chip, but it was tough all day today.
“I don’t get to play around the world as much as I’d like to, but it’s definitely nice to get a win not on my tour and after Augusta, to get my first win again, obviously the game is still in really good form and I’m really excited about the rest of the year.”
Johnson struggled a bit with his putting, but the rest of his game was so solid that his win came with relative ease. Amazingly, he had only two bogeys in 72 holes and the balky putter was the only thing that allowed the challengers any sort of encouragement. It was message-sending stuff.
“If Dustin had putted even half-decent, he’d have won by eight,” Sky Sports on-course reporter Wayne Riley said. “Everyone else knows that this guy is the ‘daddy’ right now.”
In 12 competitive rounds over the 7,010-yard course alongside the Red Sea, Johnson is 44 under par, and his worst score is 68.
“Conditions were tough out there, but I knew I was hitting it well,” Johnson said. “I kept giving myself chances, even if I didn’t hole many of them. I just played solid but just couldn’t hole any putts. I struggled with the reads. What I saw as left-to-right turned out to be right-to-left, and what I saw as right-to-left was left-to-right.
“But I’m very pleased and proud of winning when I didn’t feel like I wasn’t completely firing on all cylinders. I’m really just pleased with the way I controlled the golf ball.”
While you could applaud the exploits of Johnson, you had to feel for the seemingly snake-bitten Finau, whose only PGA Tour title is the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. After getting even, Finau bogeyed the 16th hole and then butchered the almost drivable 350-yard 17th for another over-par number before Johnson would make his decisive birdie.
So it was yet another disappointment for the long-hitting and personable Finau, who has 36 Top-10 finishes but just the lone win on golf’s toughest tour and finished fourth in The American Express and tied for second in the Farmers Insurance Open in the previous two starts. Still, Finau tried to take positives from another painful loss: good driving that took a lot of pressure off his short game and the strong run over the first half of the back nine.
“I’ve enjoyed my time here,” said Finau, who ranked a lowly 129th in final-round average on the PGA Tour last year. “A little bittersweet at the moment. I knew I could put on some pressure but unfortunately made a couple of bogeys on 16 and 17. I was floating three or four back going into 11 and knew I was running out of holes to make something happen.
“I know how well I’m playing and I’ve got to just keep positive. If I keep playing at a high level and give myself a chance to win, I just know it’s bound to happen. I hit a lot of greens and actually didn’t feel like I putted that well. That’s what I’m going to look back on as what I need to get better at to close out some of these tournaments. I have to make some of those putts from a little bit closer.”
Rose also bemoaned putting woes, but a bogey-free 65 confirmed a welcome return to form for the 2013 U.S. Open champion.
“I’ve been working on a lot of stuff but really staying patient,” Rose said. “I haven’t been playing my best golf, and it’s been easy to get frustrated. This three-week trip has felt like slow going. My good golf hasn’t been rewarded, and I’ve made silly mistakes. Momentum hasn’t quite been on my side yet, so to play a bogey-free 65 on a Sunday is something I can take to fuel the upcoming run.”
But the last words belonged to Johnson, whose message was more than clear to those who might challenge his present superiority.
“I come into every tournament looking to contend, and I prepare as best I can,” he said. “Obviously I’ve been playing some really good golf the last six months. Hopefully I’m going to continue to play this kind of golf, but I’m seeing a lot of the same things each and every week. I’ve got a great team around me that helps me perform at the highest level.”
Finau and Rose would certainly agree after the last of three events in the “Gulf Swing” that launched 2021 on the European Tour. New England golf fans hope they can have an in-person view of Johnson when he defends in the $7.4 million Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 24-27. Despite being a TV-only event last year because of the pandemic, it raised more than $1.6 million for 115 local charities through the generosity of corporate sponsors, including Travelers. Since the insurance magnate became title sponsor in 2007, more than $20 million has been generated, and at least 750 organizations have benefited.