OLD WESTBURY, N.Y.—In a FedEx Cup playoff opener that felt like a heavyweight bout, Dustin Johnson delivered back-to-back blows to beat Jordan Spieth in The Northern Trust.
One was a putt from 18 feet.
The other was a drive that travelled 341 yards.
Down to his last shot, Johnson watched his 18-foot par putt stay on the high side of the hole and thought for sure it would miss.
He took two steps of hope to the right, then pumped his fist in a rare show of emotion when it swirled around and dropped in the back side of the cup for a four-under 66 to force a playoff.
Given new life, Johnson relied on his strength and powered a drive over the lake to the far edge of the fairway.
It was the longest drive all week on the 18th hole, and it left him a 60-degree wedge to four feet for birdie and a victory he badly needed.
The No. 1 player in the golf finally looked the part again.
“It was fun to be in the hunt again and know that my game is going to hold up under pressure,” Johnson said.
Spieth lost for the first time in six tries when leading by two shots or more, and there wasn't much he could do except take back that tee shot into the water on the par-three sixth hole after building a five-shot lead.
Johnson, meanwhile, played bogey-free over the final 29 holes.
“I didn't lose the tournament," Spieth said after closing with a 69 yesterday. "He won it.”
It was great theatre between Johnson and Spieth—good friends who now are No. 1 and No. 2 in the world.
“I thought that was a fun show," Spieth said. "I was hoping it wasn't going to be that much fun.”
Johnson made up a five-shot deficit in five holes, and they battled along the back nine with big shots and big moments.
They were tied on the par-three 17th when both hit into a bunker, with Johnson blasting out to four feet with an easier shot and angle to the hole.
Spieth had 18 feet for par and knocked it in, like he always seems to do.
Then on the closing hole, Johnson showed the kind of golf I.Q. that belies his simple outlook on life.
After he sliced his drive up the hill and into a nasty lie in the rough, he chose to lay up instead of trying to hammer a shot to an elevated green.
But he made it pay off with a par that got him into the playoff after Spieth lagged a 75-foot putt perfectly to get his par.
They finished at 13-under 267.
Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont. finished in a tie for 62nd place.
Johnson was angry with himself after his tee shot in regulation for not taking it over the water—even with a light wind in his face.
“Right after I hit my drive, I was like, 'What am I doing?'” Johnson said.
He told his caddie, brother Austin Johnson, that if they got into a playoff, he wouldn't make the same mistake twice.
Johnson won for the first time since he wrenched his back during a spill down the stairs that knocked him out of the Masters and derailed his dominance in golf.
He had won three-straight tournaments against strong fields until that injury.
“I feel like the game is finally back in form like it was before the Masters,” Johnson said.
Jon Rahm (68) ran off three-straight birdies early on the back nine and briefly was one shot behind, though he had stronger holes ahead of him and fell back.
Jhonattan Vegas (65) was within two shots after playing the scoring holes.
They ended up tied for third, four shots behind.
Otherwise, it was a matter of who finished among the top 100 in the FedEx Cup to move on to the TPC Boston this week for the second playoff event.
Bubba Watson shot a 70 and tied for 10th to become one of only eight players to qualify for the second playoff event all 11 years of the FedEx Cup.
David Lingmerth and Harold Varner also moved into the top 100.
That marked the fewest players outside the top 100 to advance since 2007.