Johnson takes detour but winds up on top in playoff at LIV Tulsa

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By Murray Evans
Photos by Bill Powell
Video by Sam Humpreys

BROKEN ARROW – The LIV Golf Tulsa tournament ended Sunday at Cedar Ridge Country Club the way a lot of folks figured it might, with former world No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson winning. But it sure took a roundabout way of getting to that finish.

In between, there were a pair of 61s that matched the competitive course record, a rain delay of 1 hour and 43 minutes, an inexplicable triple bogey by Johnson, a slew of clutch putts and a three-way playoff. On the first playoff hole, Johnson holed a 15-foot birdie putt from the fringe on No. 18, with Cameron Smith and Branden Grace both missing similar putts by inches. The trio all finished the regulation 54 holes tied at 17-under.

Johnson recorded his second LIV win, with the first coming last year in Boston, pocketed the $4 million first-place prize and gained what he hopes is considerable momentum heading into the PGA Championship, which will begin Thursday on Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course in Rochester, N.Y.

“I mean, all wins are good,” Johnson said, who was headed from the course to a plane for a flight to New York on Sunday night. “I want to win as much as possible. But obviously winning in a playoff, too, for the second time, next time I’d like to win without going into a playoff would be a lot less stressful.

“The game is in really good shape. I feel like I’m doing everything really well right now, so yeah, I’m really looking forward to next week, obviously get up there tonight and get out and get a little practice in tomorrow.”

After posting a scorching 7-under-par 63 on Saturday to take a two-shot lead, the smart money was on Johnson on Sunday, and he seemed to be on cruise control early, even after the rain delay following his seventh hole. Upon resumption, he held a two-shot lead heading to the par-4 No. 10, when disaster struck.

His tee shot landed in the mud by a cart path and his second shot went into a creek. After taking a drop, he flubbed a chip, and later missed a six-foot putt en route to a triple bogey. Only one other player all week posted a triple bogey or worse on any hole.

“I wish I could blame it on the rain delay,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t the rain delay’s fault, though. No. 10 was really the only hole where I had a little bit of a hiccup and everything that could go wrong went wrong on that hole. It happens, but I battled back and obviously put myself in a position to have a chance to win and ended up getting it done.”

The disastrous hole caused Johnson to fall behind Grace, and with Smith charging – he recorded one of those 61s with a bogey-free round that included nine birdies – it became a four-man race between those three and Harold Varner III.

Varner, who started on the par-5 No. 14, was 5-under through his first four holes (thanks to two eagles) and eventually reached 10-under before a late bogey on the par-3 No. 11 that took him out of the mix.

Smith, the reigning British Open champ, entered the day trailing Johnson by six shots, but had four straight birdies during one late stretch, including an 8-footer on No. 14 to move him into a tie for the lead.

On No. 15, Smith holed a 30-foot downhill putt to take the outright lead at 16-under. Playing in the group ahead of Johnson and Grace, Smith rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to take the lead.

“To be honest, after that (birdie) putt missed on (No.) 8, I thought it might be a little bit out of reach,” Smith said. “But then I put a good string of holes together on the back nine.”

Moments after Smith’s putt on No. 18, Grace made a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 17 to tie Smith. Johnson hit a 12-footer on No. 18 to make it a three-way tie. Grace left a 45-foot birdie putt to win about three feet short but made par to seal the playoff – and a team win for the Stingers squad that also included Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Dean Burmester.

On the playoff hole, Grace, then Johnson and finally Smith all reached the green in two shots, with the three approach shots landing just a few feet apart. Grace putted first and missed just left. Johnson followed with his putt before Smith also barely missed to the right.

Branden Grace misses a putt on the first playoff hole.

“Obviously you’re in a playoff,” Johnson said. “Everybody is around, your team, all the other guys are sitting there watching. It’s a big moment, and it’s one that we all obviously were trying to take advantage of. I was just lucky enough to roll it in.”

Smith could take some consolation in that he and Varner both tied the competitive course record. Cristie Kerr set that record at Cedar Ridge in the 2006 John Q. Hammons Hotel Classic, an LPGA Tour event, firing a 10-under-par 61. With the course playing at par 70 this week, Grace posted a 61 in the first round on Friday before Varner and Smith matched him on Sunday.

“I’m just happy he bogeyed one of his last holes so he didn’t take the record,” Grace quipped. “But it happens. I think the good thing was DJ was two ahead, I was a few ahead of Bubba (Watson). That was who I was worried about the whole day. Obviously you’re going to get those guys like Cam that shoot lights out, and it’s going to happen. The class of players out here has just grown and grown, and there’s some great scores to be played and going up there. But when we see them making birdies, you know what you have to do, and just happy that both of us managed to make things count when we had to.”

Grace’s team, the Stingers – who all are from South Africa – posted a cumulative score of 40-under and edged Johnson’s 4 Aces by one shot. Grace said it wasn’t bittersweet to come so close to the individual win – he still won $1.875 million in individual prize money – and yet win the team race. The four Stingers players split the winning team prize of $3 million.

“I played really well,” Grace said. “When you get to put yourself in that situation, you’re doing something right. Played really good. Made putts when I needed to, especially on 17. Had a good two-putt on 18. I thought I made my putt on the first playoff hole. But it was going to be one of those days where you had to dig deep, play well. At the end it was not bittersweet, but I know I put in a lot of hard work and it’s paid off, and the team really wanted this one.”

The final holes and the playoff were witnessed by the 1,000 or so fans who stuck out the rain delay, but not by the television audience on the CW Network, which cut to regular programming at 5:30 p.m. After record attendance the first two days, Sunday’s crowd was depressed by Mother’s Day and by the prospect of rain. A storm did come through and players were pulled off the course at 2:07 p.m. and spectators asked to leave the course. Some returned and most followed the final two groups through the final hole fireworks.

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