Even for a player of Dustin Johnson’s immense ability, the Dell Technologies Match Play was always going to be the toughest for him to capture all four of the World Golf Championships.
Somehow, he made it look easy. It’s not just that Johnson never trailed at any point during the week. He was leading after every hole he played until the 12th hole of his quarterfinal match against Alex Noren. That’s when Johnson heard the words “all square” for the first time all week, and then he birdied three of the next four holes and won.
No wonder that when Hideto Tanihara was asked for his strategy in his semifinal match against Johnson , he said through his translator, “He looks unbeatable.” “I hope he doesn’t feel good, so maybe I have a chance,” he said.
It was harder than it looked. Tanihara hit two marvelous shots on the 13th and 14th holes to square his match against Johnson and was the first player to take him to the 18th hole, where Johnson had to make an 8-foot par putt to keep the match from going extra holes.
Jon Rahm also made Johnson’s heart beat a little faster presumably, anyway when he rallied from 5 down with 10 holes to play by taking on risky shots, pulling them off and sending the match to the 18th hole.
Johnson again avoided overtime when Rahm, after a 382-yard drive that went to the back of the green, was rattled at the sound of a portable bathroom door slamming, flinched on a tough chip and left it above the hole with a sharp-breaking, next-to-impossible birdie putt to make.
He missed and Johnson got his par, and his trophy.
“This week is very hard to win,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of golf playing against a lot of great players. And you’ve got to beat them all.”
Johnson became the first player to win all four of the World Golf Championships. He won the HSBC Champions in Shanghai in 2013, pitching in for eagle on the 16th hole. He won the Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral in 2015, and then won the same event when it moved to Mexico City this year. Last summer, fresh off his U.S. Open victory at Oakmont, he rallied to beat Jason Day in the Bridgestone Invitational.
But that requires a small asterisk.
Tiger Woods won them all before the HSBC Champions was added to the WGC lineup in 2009. He only played in Shanghai twice, getting smoked by Phil Mickelson in the final round in 2009, and finishing 12 shots behind Francesco Molinari a year later. The last few years, Woods has not been eligible, and he skipped it twice when he was.
Even though Woods was more dominant than Johnson is now, the Match Play was the toughest for him to win. Woods won five World Golf Championships before he finally won Match Play in 2003. He either had one bad round at the wrong time, or ran into one hot player.
That’s how it usually is for everyone. Winners usually have one big break during the week. Bill Haas, for example, chipped in from 120 feet for par to halve the hole in a sudden-death playoff to advance out of his group, and he later got away with a bad drive at a key moment when his ball caromed off a spectator’s head into the fairway.
Johnson didn’t have any good breaks, because he didn’t need any.
“I really never hit it in trouble,” he said.
Johnson forgot about the tee shot he hooked into the hazard on No. 3 in his semifinal match, perhaps because he still made par, and even won the hole. That speaks to the level of golf he’s at right now.
Dating to that U.S. Open victory, when a rules dispute kept him from knowing the score on the back nine at Oakmont, Johnson has won six times in his last 18 starts worldwide. He has 15 finishes in the top 10 over his last 19 tournaments.
Not since Rory McIlroy (British Open, Bridgestone Invitational, PGA Championship) has anyone won three straight tournaments. One more victory and it will be the longest winning streak since Woods won six in a row from the BMW Championship in September 2007 through the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March 2008.
The Las Vegas Westgate Superbook, which still had Jordan Spieth as a slight favorite at Augusta National a week ago, now has Johnson at 5-1, with Spieth next at 13-2.
“What am I going to say that you guys don’t know?” Rahm said. “It’s amazing how he’s able to keep cool the entire round. It amazes me. And he’s just a perfect, complete player.”