By Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press
MEMPHIS — Dustin Johnson won the St. Jude Classic on Sunday in his second event back on tour after a back injury cost him nearly three months, shooting a 4-under 66 that held off John Merrick by a stroke.
Johnson began the final round two strokes back and held a piece of the lead three different times. He won his sixth career title with consecutive birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 and finished 9-under 271.
He aggravated his back in early March lifting a jet ski at his home and didn’t return to the PGA Tour until last week at the Memorial, where he tied for 19th.
Johnson, who picked up the check for over $1 million, led by only a stroke going to No. 18. Rory McIlroy, Chad Campbell and Nick O’Hern, three of the four who had a chance to tie Johnson with a birdie, knocked their tee shots into the lake.
Merrick remains winless in 154 career tour starts. He shot a 69 and had a 272 total.
Davis Love III, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, shot a 69 and tied for third with O’Hern (69), Campbell (68) and Ryan Palmer (66) at 273. McIlroy, who now heads to San Francisco and The Olympic Club to defend his U.S. Open title, had a 69 and tied three others at 274.
Tour officials pushed tee times up more than three hours and sent players off both tees in threesomes to avoid thunderstorms predicted for Sunday afternoon. With so many bunched closely together at the TPC Southwind course, that set up a rollercoaster final round with as many as eight players having a piece of the lead during the day.
Love, O’Hern and Merrick shared the lead overnight and had plenty of company before they teed off Sunday morning. McIlroy, Kevin Stadler and Campbell got quick birdies to join the group at 6 under, and Johnson made it a seven-way tie for the lead when he birdied his first hole.
McIlroy had a two-stroke lead all to himself after four birdies through 11 holes and appeared headed to the win. But he finished with two bogeys then his first double bogey in two trips to Memphis on No. 18.
When O’Hern birdied Nos. 15 and 17, that set up a frenzied race to the finish with as many as four tied at 8 under in the final couple holes.
Johnson carded four birdies and a bogey in the round. He took control with his consecutive birdies, rejoining the lead pack at 8 under when he rolled in an 11-footer on the par-5 16th. Johnson then moved to the top of the leaderboard by himself at 9 under by hitting his second shot from 161 yards to 9 feet on the par-4 No. 17 before sinking the birdie putt.
He found the fairway with his tee shot on No. 18 and finished up with a par that proved to be just enough.
While Johnson waited, only O’Hern of Australia and Merrick had a chance to catch him, looking for their first career PGA titles. O’Hern hit his drive into the water, while Merrick hit his near the cart path and finished with his own par to match the best finish of his career.
Divots: Johnson becomes the first player since Tiger Woods (1996-2000) to win in each of his first five seasons on tour after leaving college. Johnson is the seventh player in his 20s to win on tour this year. … Johnson also is only the third player to win this event in his first start since this tournament moved to TPC Southwind in 1989. He joins Lee Westwood (2010) and Dicky Pride (1994) and is the sixth player in the 54-year history of this tournament to win in his first appearance here.