The No. 1 ranking that Dustin Johnson has held for the last 15 months has never been more in jeopardy. Four players behind him – Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose – have a mathematical chance this week at The Players Championship to replace Johnson atop the world ranking.
Spieth didn’t even know it.
“Am I one of them?” he asked Tuesday. “Sweet.”
He didn’t know because he didn’t particularly care. He reached No. 1 for the first time with his runner-up finish in the 2015 PGA Championship, and he returned to the top on three more occasions for a total of 26 weeks.
Spieth cares more about winning The Players Championship than any ramifications.
“It was never a goal of mine to hold it a certain length of time,” Spieth said. “It’s almost like a feat, like winning a major. But now it’s more like … if I remained No. 2 and won majors, and was No. 1 for a long time and won six, I’d take the first one.”
Spieth represents one of many oddities about this tournament. The Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass can be feast or famine for just about anyone. Tiger Woods, the only player to win the tournament in March and May, also has had eight finishes outside the top 20. He has only five top 10s in his 16 appearances. Remember that dynamic finish from Rickie Fowler when he won in 2015? He has missed the cut in four of his eight starts.
Spieth, meanwhile, played for the first time in 2014 and didn’t make a bogey until the 59th hole of the tournament. He tied for fourth that year. His next three trips all ended on Friday.
“I don’t have a great history the last few years here,” Spieth said. “But I also have played the course really well before and had a chance to win.”
Thomas tied for third two years ago when he closed with a 65. This will be his fourth crack at trying to reach No. 1. He needed only 12th place alone last week at Quail Hollow (he tied for 21st). He’s so close to Johnson now that he can miss the cut and still get to No. 1.
As for Johnson? He might have it tough.
He might need to finish in the top 10 to avoid losing the ranking he first reached by winning at Riviera in February 2017. The only problem there is that Johnson, for all his ability, has never finished better than 12th at The Players.
“I don’t want to lose it,” Johnson said. “So if I want to keep it, I have to play well.”
This wouldn’t even be a topic if not for a record-tying collapse in Shanghai and a lost opportunity at Pebble Beach. Johnson had a six-shot lead at the HSBC Champions, and even his peers figured the tournament was over, except that he missed on a few key approaches on the back nine, shot 77 and tied for second. Then, Ted Potter Jr. played the best round of his career and beat him at Pebble Beach.
Otherwise, Johnson’s year looks a lot better than it is. And in his mind, it hasn’t been all that bad.
“It feels like a better year,” he said. “Shanghai, it was a few iron shots that cost me. And then Pebble, Mexico, LA, Augusta, Hilton Head … all of them I played plenty well enough to win. But I didn’t putt well enough. I putted well, but nothing went in the hole. I’ve never hit so many good putts I thought were going in that didn’t. And I’m not talking 30-footers. I’m talking 10-footers.
“My last 27 holes at Hilton Head, I was 2-for-15 inside 10 feet for birdie,” he said. “Even making 60 percent, I win the tournament.”
In his nine stroke-play events this year, Johnson has not finished worse than a tie for 16th, which includes his eight-shot victory at Kapalua. The other event was Match Play, where he failed to advance out of his group.
What he strives for is being a dominant player, and that’s proving more difficult to do. The world ranking is a reasonable measure. These days, players don’t stay among the top without winning or having consistently high finishes, and Johnson is there for a reason. Only three other players – Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo – have been at the top longer than his current stay.
“It’s hard to dominate because the talent level is so good,” Johnson said. “Pretty much anyone in the field, if they play well that week, they’re going to win. To always be at the top, always competing for the win, is being pretty dominant. Just about every week, I feel like I’ve had a chance to win. The last couple of years have been pretty darn good. We’re going in the right direction.”
Spieth believes it takes more than that. He looks at dominance over a five-year window. And no one has done that since Woods, who was No. 1 for five straight years on two occasions.
“I don’t think there’s been a dominant player,” Spieth said. “You get streaks for a year or two. You watch DJ and you say, `No one can beat that guy.’ And now he can lose No. 1.”