2016 BMW CHAMPIONSHIP
"Obviously, my performance this week was fantastic. The BMW Championship is a big event, with a lot of guys around the lead. I played some really solid golf the past four days, I've got a lot of confidence in every part of my game.''
–Dustin Johnson, 2016 BMW Championship
DUSTIN JOHNSON • CHAMPION
Crooked Stick’s best-laid plans, and efforts, yield a tournament-ready golf course months ahead of schedule. In four years of preparation, Superintendent Gargasz and crew bring The Stick into world-class form. Eight weeks ahead of the best players in the world teeing it up on Pete Dye’s masterpiece, once again almost every variable point in the right direction. Murphy's Law intervenes.
July 19, 2016, shows up like lots of central Indiana mid-summer days: hot. The high peaks at 90° – five degrees above normal – nothing any Midwest golf superintendent hasn’t seen before. But then something happens that Jake Gargasz hasn’t seen before: six consecutive days of higher than normal heat, then one day below normal (by 1°), followed by 17 consecutive days of highs above the norm. On top of that: rain, and lots of it. Precipitation for August totals nearly seven and a half inches – more than double the norm. Crooked Stick, the living, breathing golf course becomes a 250-acre sauna. The club’s crew goes on high alert – for two months of near ‘round the clock defense of ground under meteorological attack.
Action in the golf world also heats up.
For the first time since 1904, golfers compete for Olympic medals. Taking gold at the August games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is Britain’s Justin Rose. Henrik Stenson from Sweden earns the silver and American Matt Kuchar, on the strength of the lowest round in Olympic history, a Sunday 63, captures bronze. All three medalists are scheduled to compete at Crooked Stick in three weeks.
FedEx Cup Playoffs get underway with The Barclays, at Bethpage Black (A.W. Tillinghast, 1935). Patrick Reed takes the crown on Sunday, August 28th. The following week, Rory McIroy comes from six back in a Monday finish to capture the Deutsche Bank Championship, just as he did ahead of the 2012 BMW at Crooked Stick. He finishes two strokes up on 54-hole leader Paul Casey.
As players pile up FedEx Cup points, wet weather continues to accrue in Central Indiana:
At last comes five straight days of zero precipitation before .05” breaks the “dry spell” on Monday 9/5.
Deutsche Bank trophy in hand, Rory McIlroy, leads a parade of challengers who begin arriving in Carmel on Tuesday, September 6. Twenty-nine of the 70 players from the 2012 BMW Championship make a return trip to Crooked Stick. However, Henrik Stenson, recently crowned Open Championship winner and Olympic silver medalist, is a late scratch. The Swede withdraws to rehab an ailing knee in preparation for 2016 Ryder Cup matches in late September. Stenson’s exit reduces the field size to 69.
McIlroy arrives at Crooked Stick upbeat. “Always nice to be back at the venue where you’ve done well before,” says the four-time major champion after a Wednesday practice round. “Every time I stepped on the tee box this morning, every single hole came back to me.”
Temperatures climb to 90° on the day. More significantly, it’s dry. Heat coupled with two consecutive days without rain creates firm, fast conditions. “It was blazing hot…and players had a look at how tough it could play,” reports Golf magazine. Jason Day experiences Crooked Stick toughness firsthand. Playing wedge from the rough on the second hole, he lands his ball some 30 feet short of the pin only to watch it speed completely through the green and into thick rough. Competitor Brian Harmon notes the difficulty. “Man, it was firm,” he says.
For the first time in more than 25 years, Crooked Stick stands ready to bare its teeth in big time competition with hard-running fairways and greens. Players gird themselves for a week of U.S. Open-like scoring resistance. But their anxiety is short-lived. Forecast for Thursday’s opening rounds: afternoon thunderstorms, prompting tournament officials to enact preferred lies from the start of round one.
At 10:03 a.m., the 2016 BMW Championship gets underway as Zach Johnson, Brian Harman and Kyle Reifers tee off on hole one.
For the next few hours, golfers battle an unforgiving golf course. That is, until Mother Nature again steps in. At 1:27 p.m. – with 15 players yet to tee off – the predicted rains arrive and officials suspend play. Competitors huddle in the clubhouse. Hours pass. Nearly an inch of rain falls. Most spectators head home.
Finally, at 5:00 p.m., the all-clear signal arrives to a rain-softened Crooked Stick. Resistance to scoring disappears.
Early starters, playing before the rains, bear the brunt Crooked Stick’s difficulty. Of the 33 players who complete their opening rounds on Thursday, 14 (42 percent) shoot over par – including ten of the first 15 players who tee off. Two early players – Roberto Castro (10:14 a.m.) and first-off Brian Harman – prove to be the day’s anomaly. Castro fires five-under 67 – a lone bogey coming on 18. The change in the course following the storms isn’t lost on the 31-year-old former Georgia Tech star: “It was really firm before the delay. The greens were firm,” he says. “And then after the delay, it really softened up.”
Brian Harman, alone in second at 66, agrees. “Yeah (the course) changed…when we were out there (in the morning) it was very, very windy, very firm and very difficult.”
Early finisher Sergio Garcia steers home a hard-earned 69. “I was playing beautifully early in the morning when the course was firm. Fairways were running. You had to hit good tee shots. You had to hit good shots into the greens. Unfortunately, the rain made it soft and easier for everybody that started after the rain delay. Three under this morning, the way the course was playing, would have been a really, really good round.”
Dustin Johnson, number one on tour in average driving distance, racks up seven birdies and shoots 67. “The fairways were rolling out pretty good,” says Johnson. “And the greens had some bounce in them…then obviously, with the rain, no roll in the fairways and the greens were very receptive.” Johnson bogeys 4 and 18, his tee ball finding the lake on the final hole. Gallery favorites Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott tee off after 5:00 p.m. and complete just 10 holes.
Darkness approaching, officials suspend play at 8:00 p.m. They schedule round one to resume Friday at 8:00 a.m., and second rounds at 10:00 a.m., off tees 1 and 10. Weather forecast: more rain to come – but likely after Friday play concludes.
A kinder, gentler Crooked Stick welcomes the field on day two. Softened fairways and greens, mostly cloudy skies, light winds from the southwest, and a second round of the "lift, clean and place" rule in effect open the scoring floodgate. The result: just eight rounds over par in round two (vs. 22 for round one), 10 bogey-free second rounds, 48 scores under par (25 of them in the 60s), 56 players at par or better at the end of 36 holes – and a new Crooked Stick course record from world's number two ranked golfer.
Dustin Johnson's nine-under 63, comes with two eagles (9 and 15), five birdies and no bogeys. “I like the golf course,” he says. “You get to hit lots of drivers…it sets up pretty well for me.” All parts of his game come together as he cards nines of 32-31. “Drove it good. Hit a lot of good iron shots. But I really rolled the putter nicely,” he adds. Johnson ranks first in putting after two rounds. His 63, added to his 67 in round one, boosts Johnson to the top of the 36-hole leaderboard at -14, into a tie with round one leader Roberto Castro.
After a second consecutive 65, Castro hints at the secret to his strong play. “It’s a big golf course. The rough is really long. You’re going to struggle on some of those holes out of the rough.” Over the first 36 holes, Castro rarely plays from the long grass. He misses just five fairways and hits 14 greens in regulation each day. “Crooked Stick, the whole course is in great shape, but the greens are a joke,” he jokes. “I mean they’re perfect. They really are as good a surface as I’ve ever seen.”
Three strokes behind the leaders at -11 lurks Deutsche Bank runner-up Paul Casey. Rounds of 67-66 prompt praise for Crooked Stick from the Englishman. “I really like this golf course; (it’s) great” he says. “The setup is absolutely wonderful. The greens are superb. It’s just a case now, you can throw darts…and you can be very, very aggressive with second shots. I think a lot of guys get frustrated because it’s Pete Dye, but I really like it.”
Two-time major champ Jordan Spieth offers similar thoughts after rounds of 68 and 72. “Ball in hand, you’re hitting off a good lie each time. It’s kind of target practice right now,” he says. “The greens are rolling beautifully.”
Rounding out the top of the pack at -10 are J.B. Holmes (69-65) and Chris Kirk (68-66). Next is Ryan Palmer who shoots 64 in round two and heads into weekend play tied for sixth at -7 with Matt Kuchar (68-69), Kevin Na (69-68) and Sergio Garcia (69-68).
As expected, overnight brings rain, beginning around midnight and ending a couple of hours later. In all, more than an inch falls. Soft becomes softer. “Extremely wet conditions,” FedEx Cup officials report to the media, “2.94 inches of rain for the week.”
Saturday’s opening tee shots, originally set for 11:00 a.m. get moved to 12:30 p.m. One aspect of play, however, doesn't change: Dustin Johnson’s low scoring. Playing in the 1:01 p.m. group with Castro and Casey, he shoots 35-33, 68 to stay ahead of the pack, ending the day three strokes in front at -18. Saturday’s playing conditions present more challenge than the first two days as winds gust to 25 miles an hour and light rains fall mid-afternoon. Sixteen scores creep over-par.
“It was pretty tough,” says Johnson. “The wind was blowing pretty hard and a little bit different direction. It made the par fives play a little tougher.” With the overnight rain, greens roll more slowly. “I struggled with the speed a little bit early in the round and I kept leaving everything a little bit short,” admits Johnson, who opens the day with bogey on No. 1. “But I got a pretty good handle on the back nine.” His “pretty good handle” generates birdies on 14, 15, 16 and 18.
Johnson’s playing competitors each match his score of 68. Casey’s bumps him up a spot into second at -15, three behind. The 68 from J.B. Holmes moves him to -14, up one place into third.
But with preferred lies for a third consecutive day, low scoring continues. Twenty-seven players eclipse par. Best on the day are 67s from Adam Scott and Billy Horschel. “I think it played maybe a shot or two harder than the first two days, maybe,” says Scott. “The winds were tricky.”
Scott heads into the final round at T5, along with Matt Kuchar who shoots 68 in round three. Falling out of contention is Rory McIlroy. His hopes for a second BMW crown at Crooked Stick end with a Saturday 73. He drops to T35 at -3 (68-72-73).
Sunday’s title race looks to be a contest between the final pairing: Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey. With sunny, bright-blue skies, preferred lies, and a gallery of 35,000, that’s exactly how the last chapter of the 2016 BMW Championship unfolds.
Leader Dustin Johnson strikes early – birdie at one to Casey’s par. Johnson up four. Fortunes quickly reverse. Casey goes birdie-birdie on 2 and 3 to Johnson’s bogey-bogey – a four-stroke swing. Three holes played, the two stand tied at -17.
Johnson returns the salvo. He birdies on 4, 5, 7 and 8 while Casey records five straight pars. After eight holes: Johnson -21, Casey -17. The scoring barrage leaves Johnson's playing competitor impressed. “He bogeyed 2 and he bogeyed 3,” Casey says. “And then he steps up and he birdies 4 and 5…brilliant.”
The run gives Johnson a boost. “I got a little momentum going on the front, birdieing 4, 5, 7 and 8…hit some really nice wedges in there on a few of them.”
Over the first three rounds, Dustin Johnson feasts on the 530-yard, par-five 9th, going birdie, eagle, birdie. But on Sunday, he exits the green with par, the result of a three-putt. Casey takes advantage: birdie. He heads to the back nine three behind. But just as quickly, Casey drops a stroke on 10 with bogey to Johnson’s par.
On 11, it’s Johnson: birdie, Casey: par, widening Dustin’s edge to five. Twelve and 13 yield par-bogey for Johnson to birdie-par for Casey. Johnson’s lead shrinks to three, where it stays briefly as both players par 14. The leaderboard shows Casey at -18, Johnson, -21 as they make the short walk to 15 tee.
The short, 523-yard par-five hole presents an ideal scoring opportunity – to both players. And so it goes. Casey’s second shot finds the green, stopping 25 feet from the hole, which is just nine paces from the back-left edge. Johnson drops his second – a four-iron from 230 yards – six feet inside of Casey. Putting first, Casey strikes, sinking his eagle putt to draw within one stroke of the leader…momentarily.
As he has all week, Johnson answers, holing his 19-foot for eagle to retain his cushion: Johnson -23, Casey -20. “He rolled in a nice eagle putt, and then I made one right on top of him,” says Johnson. “I think that was kind of the turning point,”
Three holes to play – and the scoring fireworks come an abrupt halt as both players finish par-par-par on Pete Dye’s brutal 16, 17 and 18. Johnson cruises to a BMW Championship crown for the second time, his first coming in 2010. On hand at 18 green as Dustin holes out for the win are Pete and Alice Dye. On hand for the runner-up spot a second week is Paul Casey.
In the wake of their back and forth scoring volleys, the day ends just as it began, with Johnson three strokes clear of the field. Johnson and Casey match cards on Sunday with 5-under 67s. After it’s over, Casey tips his cap to the winner. “I ran into a buzz saw with Dustin Johnson the last two days,” he says. “I did everything I could. I hold my head up high that it was a great fight. It was fun making eagles against each other coming down the stretch.”
Johnson returns the compliments. “Paul played really well and made it quite interesting. I felt like it was pretty tight all day.”
Roberto Castro, leader after 18 and 36 holes, recovers from a third round 74 with 67 on Sunday to take solo third place at -17. Fifty-four-hole co-leader J.B. Holmes, shoots 74 and drops into a T4 with four others at -12. Posting the low score on the day is 2011 Masters champ Charl Schwartzel. He posts an eight birdie, no bogey 64 and jumps from 22nd into the group at T4. Struggling on the Crooked Stick’s greens most of the week, the South African puts a new putter he has never played with in his bag on Sunday. “I struggled with the putting the first three days,” he explains. “I changed my putter this morning…and I made some putts. And that’s the difference.”
For the week, winner of the 2016 BMW Championship shows dominance not only on the scoreboard but in the statistical analysis as well. Johnson ranks first in the field in driving distance, first in putts per green, first in strokes gained off the tee, third in strokes gained tee to green and second in strokes gained putting.
Seated in the press tent beside the Wadley Trophy, the winner offers final reflections about the week, and about Crooked Stick. “Fairways are fairly narrow and the rough’s pretty deep,” says Johnson. “It’s definitely a course you’ve got to drive it well on, which I did this week. The greens have got a lot of slope in them. It’s a course (on which) you’ve got to really control your ball and control your distance – kind of put your ball on the right side of the hole, depending on where the flags are.”
The champ also recognizes Crooked Stick’s grounds crew, who were put to the test. “I think the guys did a great job this week, with the weather,” he says. “We got a bunch of rain, but the course held up really nicely. It was in fantastic shape all week.”
A few weeks after the tournament, club President Nick Deets affirms Johnson’s sentiments. “The feedback from the Tour, WGA, and television representatives was unanimous,” he says. “Crooked Stick is a unique and special place, with some of the best greens in golf.” Attendance for BMW week at The Stick is also announced: 124,800.