By Tom LaMarre
Soon after the PGA Tour returned from its three-month shutdown because of the Coronavirus last June, Dustin Johnson started a run that led to the best season of his already remarkable career.
Johnson started it off by winning the Travelers Championship by one stroke over Kevin Streelman, and will defend that title beginning Thursday at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn.
The biggest difference is that there will be fans on the course this time.
“It was definitely strange playing with no fans, but you still can feel the pressure, you still can feel how important a golf tournament it is, and you’re coming down the stretch, to me it felt the same, whether it was a million fans or zero,” said Johnson, who posted a score of 69-64-61-67—261, 19-under-par.
The victory gave DJ at least one title in all 13 seasons he has played on the PGA Tour, and he went on to win the Northern Trust in August, the Tour Championship in September and the Masters in November.
Johnson, who turned 37 on Tuesday, captured the FedEx Cup title, was selected PGA Tour Player of the Year for the second time and solidified himself as the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings.
But DJ, who has won 27 times as a pro including 24 titles on the PGA Tour, will tee off at TPC River Highlands as the No. 2 player in the world, as Jon Rahm of Spain took the No. 1 spot from him by winning the U.S. Open on Sunday at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, where DJ faded to a tie for 19th.
“We’re excited to have our reigning champion in the field as we continue to develop plans for what we expect to be another world-class tournament,” Tournament Director Nathan Grube of the Travelers Championship said.
“His victory at TPC River Highlands last year started a record-setting, award-winning run for him, and we’re thrilled that Dustin will be coming back to Connecticut to defend his title.
“We are in a good spot. We’re glad the guys like playing here and we love having them here.”
Also playing from the world top 10 in the field are No. 6 Bryson DeChambeau, last year’s U.S. Open champion, No. 7 Patrick Cantlay, No. 8 Brooks Koepka and No. 9 Patrick Reed.
Others in the solid field include Paul Casey of England, Tony Finau, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose of England, Scottie Scheffler, Francesco Molinari of Italy, Bubba Watson, Harris English, Russell Henley, Mackenzie Hughes of Canada, Daniel Berger, Cameron Smith of Australia, Guido Migliozzi of Italy, Joaquin Niemann of Chile, Abraham Ancer of Mexico and Matthew Wolff.
Johnson hopes to regain the No. 1 spot by beating them all again.
1. Dustin Johnson, United States – The defending Travelers champion shot 61 in round three last year en route to the title, and has shown signs of coming out of his recent slump by tying for 13th in the RBC Heritage, tying for 10th in the Palmetto Championship and tying for 19th in the U.S. Open, when he was in the hunt before he shot 74 on Sunday.
2. Bryson DeChambeau, United States – Led briefly in the final round of his title defense in the U.S. Open before imploding on the back nine on his way to a 77 to tie for 26th. The sixth-ranked DeChambeau has finished in the top 10 the last three years in the Travelers, tying for ninth in 2018, tying for eighth in 2019 and tying for sixth last season.
3. Brooks Koepka, United States – The eighth-ranked Koepka is another player who stumbled coming home with a chance to win the U.S. Open, as two bogeys on the last three holes gave him a 69 and left him four strokes back in a tie for fourth. His best finish in four starts in the Travelers was a tie for ninth in 2016, when he shot 64 in round three.
4. Paul Casey, England – Birdied the last three holes on the front nine on his way to a 70 that left him in a tie for seventh in the U.S. Open after tying for fourth in the PGA, and has six top-10s this season. Lost in a playoff to Bubba Watson in the 2015 Travelers and tied for second in 2018, when he led after a 62 in the third round before closing with a 72.
5. Francesco Molinari, Italy – Starting to perform like the guy who outplayed Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to win the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie, Molinari tied for 13th in the U.S. Open, despite a 76 in round two. Had three top 10s on West Coast Swing. His best finish in three starts in the Travelers was a tie for 25th in 2015.
6. Bubba Watson, United States – The two-time Masters champion has claimed three of his 12 PGA Tour victories in the Travelers, winning in 2010, 2015 and 2018, in addition to three other top-10 finishes. Has seven top-25s this season and was in the conversation at the U.S. Open before playing the weekend in 77-76 to plummet into a tie for 50th.
7. Patrick Cantlay, United States – Looking for his first major title in the U.S. Open, he left himself with a steep hill to climb by shooting 75 in round two, and wound up in a tie for 15th after closing with 71-69. The seventh-ranked Cantlay tied for 11th in the Travelers Championship last year after tying for 15th each of the two previous seasons.
8. Harris English, United States – Birdied three of the last five holes to shoot 68 and finish three strokes back in solo third in the U.S. Open. It was his sixth top-10 finish of the season, including a victory on the Sony TOC. English’s best result in the Travelers was a tie for seventh in 2014, when he was tied for second after opening with 66-64.
9. Garrick Higgo, South Africa – Missed the cut in his first U.S. Open by two strokes at 76-72—148, but that hasn’t diminished what the 22-year-old has done this season. Higgo won twice in the Canary Islands on the European Tour in April and May, and then captured his first victory on the PGA Tour two weeks ago in the Palmetto Championship.
10. Patrick Reed, United States – Closed with a 67 with three birdies on the last five holes to climb 35 spots in the standings for a tie for 19th in the U.S. Open. He has 12 top-25s this season, including six top-10s, one a victory in the Farmers Insurance Open. The ninth-ranked Reed tied for fifth in the 2017 Travelers after tying for 11th the year before.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Marc Leishman, Australia; Rickie Fowler, United States; Justin Rose, England; Si Woo Kim, South Korea; Daniel Berger, United States; Russell Henley, United States; Cameron Smith, Australia; Jhonattan Vegas, Venezuela; Mackenzie Hughes, Canada; Tony Finau, United States.
1. Guido Migliozzi, Italy – Five-time winner in Europe finished second in his two most recent events on the other side of the Pond before posting a T-4 in his first U.S. Open.
2. Abraham Ancer, Mexico – Still looking for first PGA Tour victory, but his T-8 in PGA was his 13th top-25 this season. T-11 in the Travelers last year after a T-8 in 2019.
3. Matthew Wolff, United States – Winner of 2019 3M Open took two months off to mentally recharge, then was T-15 in U.S. Open after finishing second in the 2020 event.
4. Joaquin Niemann, Chile – Eight-time pro winner at 22 shot 75 in round one but was T-31 in U.S. Open. Eight top-25s this season, with two seconds. T-5 in 2019 Travelers.
5. Scottie Scheffler, United States – Still seeking first PGA Tour victory, T-7 in U.S. Open was his third top-10 in majors. Seven top-10s this season, including T-8 in PGA.