Gray skies, spitting rain and the absence of Tiger Woods could not dampen a dramatic final round on the Blue Monster.
The WGC-Cadillac Championship was leader J.B. Holmes’ tournament to lose, and that he did, as first Bubba Watson, then Dustin Johnson chased him down in a Sunday scramble.
A climax packed with high-stakes golf shots on every hole injected intensity into the atmosphere at Trump National Doral. The vibe had been a little too mellow over the first three days, maybe because too many fans were chilling inside the various cocktail lounges and corporate suites arrayed around the grounds, or maybe because Holmes built a cushy lead, starting with his incredible opening-round 62, which prompted Donald Trump to ask for tougher pin placements on his revamped course.
Even PGA Tour commissioner Tom Finchem acknowledged he’d heard the tournament described as “flat” and lacking “buzz.”
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All that changed midafternoon, as the wind swirled and Johnson began stalking playing partner Holmes.
Four and a half hours later, Johnson had slayed the beast with a 69 to finish 9-under-par and Holmes had blown up to a 75, one shot behind. Watson scorched the front nine with a 32, and cooled off to a 71 and two shots back.
Johnson began the round five shots behind Holmes, then made the biggest comeback in the history of the event, bettering the three-shot deficit Justin Rose overcame in 2012.
“It feels awesome to get that W,” Johnson said. “I knew I was really good. I just knew there was something I was missing that would make me great. I worked on that, and I think it’s showing right now.”
Johnson, 30, won in only his fifth tournament back since a six-month leave of absence to deal with what he described as excessive drinking and news reports described as a suspension for a positive drug test for cocaine. As he headed to the scorer’s room, he embraced fiancée Paulina Gretzky (daughter of “The Great One” Wayne) and 2-month old son Tatum. Fatherhood gave him incentive to “calm down” his lifestyle, he said.
Calm would be the way he played Sunday. He took a two-stroke lead at No. 15 with a birdie putt. He strode to the 18th — the hole that has doomed so many would-be champions — with a one-shot edge and held it with a 320-yard drive over the water and a sublime putt from the edge of the green to tap-in distance.
Johnson showed he was ready to accelerate when he nearly made his second hole-in-one in as many days on No. 4.
“Whoa, bro!” yelled a fan in Johnson’s gallery, which was filled with people making audible burps.
Fans had plenty to cheer as the day unfolded: Watson, the self-taught pro with the homemade swing from tiny Bagdad, Florida, who prefers everyman Bubba to his given name of Gary; Holmes, whose career is returning to form after he recovered from two brain surgeries, and Johnson, who says he and Gretzky — known as an Instagram star for her vivacious pics — have reformed their partying ways.
No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy couldn’t find much momentum and finished in a tie for ninth, despite having his 3-iron rescued by a scuba diver from where he flung it into the water on Friday and returned to him personally by The Donald. The club must have been cursed because McIlroy used it to hit into the water on 18, then feigned tossing the club into the pond again.
Trump was everywhere Sunday after greeting McIlroy at the driving range. He talked a lot about his $250 million in improvements at Doral, especially the redesigned course with which the golfers have a love/hate relationship.
“I didn’t just fix it; I blew it up,” Trump said. “It was flat, and tired. We’ve added so many features. There was hardly a blade of grass out here.”
His next project is redoing Turnberry in Scotland. To prove his humility, he is not insisting that the Trump name be imposed on the legendary course “but they have no objection to it; they see the value in it.”
He envisions Doral — destination and tournament — getting better and better, even if the crowds and energy seemed down this year, because of the soggy weather and no Tiger.
“I remember how long it took for all of us to come to grips with Jack [Nicklaus] stepping away,” he said. “It took years. Nobody wanted to let Jack go.
“It’s going to happen, so the more relevant question is how bad is it when it happens. We need other stars to develop.”
He also recalled “when Tiger was in his prime, there was a huge buzz here because he was doing things like driving the par 4, and he had a couple good duels down the stretch.”
Woods didn’t even qualify for the Cadillac Championship this year. There was a good duel down the stretch nonetheless. It was a sign of the future: Doral will thrive without him.