Dustin Johnson is hard enough to beat without giving him a few strokes

  • Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
  • Covered golf for more than 20 years
  • Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University

ATLANTA — If you can get by the little matter that Xander Schauffele has the lowest score of the week but still trails by 5 strokes heading into the final round of the Tour Championship, all is good.

Of course, that scenario was bound to play out when the PGA Tour reconfigured its season-ending, 30-player event at East Lake to have just one winner of the Tour Championship — and thus the FedEx Cup title.

That is certainly no knock on Dustin Johnson, who is playing some phenomenal golf at the moment and is a day away from a massive, $15 million payday that goes with the FedEx Cup title.

He leads Schauffele and Justin Thomas by 5 shots, but he has played those 54 holes in two more strokes than Schauffele, who began the week in 14th place in the strokes-adjusted format now used for the Tour Championship.

To get a hold of how this is playing out, you simply have to buy in to the idea that the leader in FedEx Cup points coming into the Tour Championship was going to be rewarded with a lead on the scoreboard and a head start toward that windfall.

That’s how Johnson can be leading overall but trailing in strokes.

He started the tournament at 10 under par, the number assigned to the No. 1 player in points. Schauffele started at 14th and thus started at 3 under par — 7 strokes back. Thomas was 3 back after starting in third place. Jon Rahm, who was in second place, was 2 back and now finds himself 6 strokes behind Johnson.

All players knew the rules, and their play has undoubtedly been influenced by where they began Friday.

The bottom line is that it will be difficult to catch Johnson in Monday’s final round.

“He’s showcased what he can do,” said Schauffele, who will play the final round with Johnson. “If he does what he normally does, it’s going to be almost impossible to catch him. I can try and influence him, which he probably won’t really care about. If I birdie the first three holes, it’s not going to faze him. It’s DJ. We’ve seen him do it for 20-plus years now, and I just have to try and be better.”

Said Rahm: “We’re going to need Dustin to not have a good day.”

“Those guys trying to chase him down, they’re probably going to have to shoot 6, 7, 8 under to have a chance,” said Harris English, who is well out of contention. “Because he’s not just trying to win — he’s trying to beat everybody by 10 shots. It’s impressive the run he’s on now.”

Keep in mind that not all is lost for those who seem to be in a futile pursuit. Second place in the FedEx Cup is worth $5 million, with third paying $4 million and fourth doling out $3 million. Those differences are not much less than a first-place check at a majority of PGA Tour events.

Even the last-place finisher here gets $395,000, so just about everyone gets to go home happy. But few feel better about their games than Johnson does.

This is the fourth consecutive event in which Johnson will take a 54-hole lead into the final round. He led after three rounds at the PGA Championship last month, shot a 68 and finished tied for second, 2 shots back of winner Collin Morikawa.

At the Northern Trust two weeks ago at TPC Boston, Johnson shot a second-round 60 and cruised to an 11-stroke victory as English watched in awe in the final group.

“It’s really impressive,” English said. “There’s really nothing you can do about it. I saw he hit maybe two fairways yesterday and still shot what he did.

“I mean, if he hits the ball like everybody knows he can and the way he’s putting — I haven’t seen him putt that well in a long time. The work he and Austin [Johnson’s caddie and brother] have been doing on the greens is incredible, and he’s on a run right now. It’s hard to stop.”

A week ago, Johnson shared the lead at the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields, shot a final-round 67 with a long birdie putt on the 18th green to tie Rahm, who finished with a 64, and then lost to a long birdie putt in a playoff.

In his past 19 rounds dating to the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, Johnson has been out of the 60s just twice, with his worst score a 71 in the opening round at Olympia Fields.

A day after hitting just two fairways, Johnson hit 11 of 14 on Sunday. He hit 13 of 18 greens, and he made just a single bogey.

“Obviously, the game is in good form,” Johnson said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in everything I’m doing right now. And I’ve played well over the last four events, and I’m comfortable in the spot that I’m in.

“Even the two Sundays [PGA and BMW] where I didn’t win, I felt like I played really solid rounds. Just a couple of guys played a little better. [Monday] is more of the same. I just need to go out and focus on what I’m doing and shoot the lowest score I can.”

That seems simple enough. And for Johnson, perhaps it is.

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