Johnson hammering tough East Lake into submission

Imagine you are Kevin Kisner, and you are darn lucky to be him. You’re an established PGA Tour player, having claimed a first victory at Sea Island at the start of this wrap-around season.

You get to the first tee Friday for the second round of the Tour Championship, just one stroke off the lead of a lofty tournament. Feeling good. Feeling strong. And then your playing partner arrives.

Dustin Johnson is 6-4. You are 5-10. He leads the professional world in driving distance. You are ranked No. 112, averaging 25 yards less off the tee. This is the last fellow you want to be sitting next to at the beach or standing next to on the tee box.

No worries, you tell yourself. He’s just another guy from South Carolina like yourself. You’ve seen him forever. You just got to do what you do well and not worry about Johnson’s ridiculous game.

Then Johnson breaks out that sledgehammer of a game — who knew that golf had its very own John Henry — and he begins to pound away. Bang, bang, bang goes the hammer. It comes down on everyone. Kisner just happened to be the first-hand witness Friday.

On the par 5 sixth hole Friday, the hammer made quite an impression. Both Johnson and Kisner wandered left off the tee into the gnarly East Lake rough. Kisner had no recourse but to bunt his ball out to safety, 70 yards short of the hole. With his strength, Johnson hit his through the green, 28 feet from the target. A birdie was a foregone conclusion.

Bang, bang, bang went the hammer Friday. Johnson, the top seed in the FedEx Cup standings until they come up with something higher than No. 1, shot 67 and moved to 7 under at the halfway point of the Tour Championship. There are 28 players looking up to him (Jason Day withdrew from the 30-player field Friday, his back still talking dirty to him).

They all have been talking about how hard East Lake is playing this year, about the man-eating rough. “The hardest rough we’ve played in years,” Mickelson said. But what chance does a little thick grass have against a great big hammer?

Kisner, who began the round one shot behind Johnson, is now four back, tied for third at 3 under.

To catch Johnson, he feels the same pressure as everyone else to have to play near perfectly to match a guy who makes it all look so sublimely simple. That is only magnified in the case of a player of average length.

“I got to get the ball in the fairway somehow to be able to catch D.J. He hits it so far, he can compete when he’s in the rough and I just can’t. I’ve got to rely on the short game and getting the ball in the fairway,” he said.

Hope still burns in the heart of a competitor, though. What are any of them going to do here, just pack up their sponsor-laden bags and go home? “If he keeps hitting it like that it’s going to be tough,” Kisner said. “If I can get it in the fairway, I can catch him.”

So, now imagine you are Kevin Chappell. You’re next up. Now it’s your turn to pair with Johnson in Saturday’s third round.

You are a stroke back of Johnson, in second place. Ah, second place again. A familiar position. You’ve finished second three times on Tour this year. Held 36-hole leads in Boston and Sea Island and took one small step back. Made a bogey on the last hole at Bay Hill to finish behind Day.

There are players with much more recognizable names on today’s select leaderboard. But none of them are currently in sight. Rory McIlroy (2 under) is five back of Johnson; Adam Scott is seven back and is Jordan Spieth. Phil Mickelson (6 over) is just here to run some experiments off the tee before the Ryder Cup.

You are but a guy looking for your first PGA Tour victory who figures to give Johnson all he can handle at least on the front nine Saturday. You’ve killed it there, shooting a combined 7 under on the front the first two days. If only East Lake were a nine-hole track.

Saturday will be a day to measure yourself.

“I promise you, I will be watching Dustin,” Chappell said post-round Friday. “He’s the best player in the world right now and it’s an opportunity for me to see where my game is.

“There’s a golf tournament going on, and I have a chance to win that. That’s the ultimate goal. But I also have a chance to see why he’s the best player in the world right now and I look forward to taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Bang, bang, bang goes the hammer. And even the ones who take the blows have to admire it.