ATLANTA — Dustin Johnson launched a drive on the practice range at East Lake and some 320 yards away, saw it take one hop off the green meshing on the fence. Not satisfied, he teed up another and let it fly, this one clearing the fence.
This is what makes Johnson so appealing. But it’s not what makes him so good.
Look back to Riviera Country Club on a rainy Wednesday in February, when Johnson finished his pro-am round and headed out to the range to try using a computer model for the first time — but only for his wedges. He got those dialed in this summer, and he suddenly looks hard to beat.
That’s why Johnson is a U.S. Open champion and the No. 1 seed going into the Tour Championship, making him the favorite to win the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus.
“He’s kind of figured out the way he’s supposed to play golf now,” Brandt Snedeker. “You look at him, and he checks all the boxes of what a No. 1 player in the world looks like. It’s been fun to watch him evolve into that player.”
Johnson is coming off a victory in the BMW Championship, his third of the year.
But with the points being reset at the Tour Championship, anyone has a mathematical chance of claiming the FedEx Cup, and the top five players only have to win to take home the biggest payoff in golf.
THE TOP FIVE: Aside from winning, the goal in three FedEx Cup playoff events leading to Atlanta is to get into the top five. Those are the one who have a clear shot at the $10 million prize.
Johnson won the BMW Championship. He is followed by Barclays winner Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, world No. 1 Jason Day and Paul Casey. Missing from that group is Rory McIlroy, who won the Deutsche Bank Championship but wound up as the No. 6 seed.
Casey went to No. 5 on the strength of successive runner-up finishes, while Scott went to No. 3 by finishing fourth in all three playoff events.
THE HISTORY: This is the 10th year of the FedEx Cup, and if history is any indication, most of the field can stop dreaming about ways to spend $10 million.
The No. 1 seed going into the Tour Championship won the first three years — Tiger Woods twice and Vijay Singh. The No. 2 seed has won the last three years — Jordan Spieth, Billy Horschel and Henrik Stenson.
Only twice has the FedEx Cup champion come from outside the top 10 — Jim Furyk was No. 11 in 2010, while Bill Haas was at No. 25 in 2011.
THE COURSE: The PGA Tour decided to switch the nines at East Lake to make for a more compelling finish. So instead of that long, uphill par-3 closing hole, the finish now is a par 5 in which tee shots have to be in the fairway to have any chance at reaching the green. There’s a pond, but it’s about 80 yards from the green and mostly comes into play when someone tries to clear it from the rough.
It should make for a little more excitement, possibly even an eagle.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said last year that if it comes down to the wire and attracts more TV viewers, it will take longer to play a par 5 than a par 3, and the audience might stick around longer. That’s one case of simple math in the FedEx Cup.
THE PICK: Still to be determined is the final American to be picked for the Ryder Cup, and the Tour Championship could go a long way in sorting that out.
U.S. captain Davis Love III invited Bubba Watson, Daniel Berger and Justin Thomas to Hazeltine over the weekend to play the course, and it’s clear he’s looking at all three of them to return next week when it counts.
THE OTHER BATTLE: Dustin Johnson and Jason Day are the leading candidates to be PGA Tour player of the year, which is a vote of the players after the Tour Championship. Day figures he will have to win at East Lake to have any chance, and if he does, he thinks that will be enough to win the vote.
That would give him The Players Championship, the Tour Championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Dell Match Play, along with being the FedEx Cup champion. It might be enough to win the money title, provided Johnson finishes worse than third.
Johnson, meanwhile, is in good shape to win the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average, and his three victories are the U.S. Open, the Bridgestone Invitational and BMW Championship. Advantage, Johnson.
At least until the Tour Championship is over.