Dustin Johnson finally found his rhythm on Saturday in the third round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Perhaps he recovered from jet-lag — it’s a nine-hour time difference from the Florida. And I know personally that it’s rough (and my body doesn’t do well or adjust quickly), and when your body clock is out of whack, it then affects your timing, tempo, touch, so basically, everything. On Friday night, however, DJ slept well, which was reflected with his score.
“Yeah, finally,” said DJ. “I got a good night’s sleep. I even got up and went to the gym this morning before I teed off. Definitely by far the best day I’ve been feeling out on the golf course.”
Indeed. He was LIT, posting eight-under 64 to get to 12-under for the tournament. And get this: He has yet to birdie a par-5 in 54 holes at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. No joke. However, he rolled in an eagle on the eighth hole, so he’s technically two-under for the week on par-5s. But it’s definitely rare for DJ to play three rounds without a birdie on a par-5. He can’t recall the last time that’s happened, but it’s certainly unusual — maybe a year? A few even?
DJ surged 36 spots up the crowded leaderboard to a five-way tie for second. They will all be chasing leader Tyrell Hatton by a shot. (Are the rumors true?!? Never mind…) At one point on Friday, there was a real possibility he would miss the cut if he didn’t get things rolling.
Which would have actually been a story because he was paid a very handsome appearance fee. According to several sources familiar with the deal, he received around $2 million just to show up and play. The total purse for the tournament is $2.7 million, with the winner’s check totaling around $300,000.
(Rickie Fowler, the defending champions, will also take home a seven-digit paycheck regardless of his finish. Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett and Martin Kaymer were also generously compensated. One player told me the sponsor pays $7 million in appearance fees! Which sounds about right. When you compare the total prize money to that number, it’s a bit insulting and makes it an exhibition or “joke”, as he pointed out. But it’s the strongest field with the most world ranking points on the line all year on this tour! Well, it was last year. That’s life, though, I guess — it ain’t always right or fair.)
“I played a little bit better today,” said Johnson, who had never been to this region of the world prior to this week. “You know, the biggest difference, I drove it better. I hit a lot more fairways today than I have been. Holed a few putts. Still have yet to birdie a par 5, but I did make an eagle on 8 today. I chipped one in. But yeah, it was a really solid round.”
A big part of the recipe? He switched putters between the first and second rounds and that made all the difference. Initially, he was using a blade-like putter during practice and felt good with it, but then it went cold on Thursday. He switched back to a mallet putter that he normally uses.
“I went back to, the (TaylorMade) Spider,” he said. “But yeah, I definitely holed some more putts than I did the first day.”
Between the putter switch and lack of scoring on par-5s, he’d probably have run away from the field already! The course sets up *perfectly* for him. When I walked nine hole on Tuesday, my instant observation was that it felt very American — it was like we were in Phoenix or Palm Springs. (I’ll find out for myself on Tuesday or Wednesday, which I’m looking forward to… it’s always fun/interesting to play the venue to get a better feel for it.) But it makes sense since we are in the desert, after all. The course is also long, measuring 7,583 yards, so again, advantage, DJ.
“Palm Springs, Arizona, all the desert courses,” said DJ when I asked if it reminded him of anything back home in U.S. “To me they’re all the same.”
If DJ can take advantage of the par-5s, then his chances of hoisting the trophy look good. Which will certainly make the sponsor happy that they got their money’s worth. After all, with a big name like DJ, it creates more buzz for the tournament worldwide.
However, there are 15 players within three shots of the leader, including Open champion Henrik Stenson, four-time 2016 winner Alex Noren and 23-time European Tour winner Lee Westwood.
Hatton, the leader, had a solid season last year, ending his 2016 campaign by finishing runner-up in the DP World Tour Championship, notching his seventh top-ten finish in 11 appearances, a run which included a maiden European Tour victory in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. The 25-year-old Englishman said he didn’t practice much in December and instead played a lot of X-box, like “Call of Duty.” And don’t ask him about those rumors, he’s still recovering from the traumatic interview with the awkward reporter!
DJ will tee it up in the final group Sunday with Hatton and Pablo Larrazabal.
[*Aside: This is also why I have so much respect for the European Tour players who travel across the world regularly. It’s very different than the way things are in America. Let’s just say, they’re a lot more precious and very coddled (my words, to be clear). I was chatting with Matteo Manassero on Tuesday and the differences between the PGA Tour and European Tour came up in the conversation. Basically, everything is taken care of for the players in America, which isn’t exactly a newsflash. I mean, they even have their laundry done!
I was telling Matteo that I have so much respect for the Europeans (which includes those who are members of both tours and play a world schedule). I know those guys, like Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, etc., are generously compensated, and many have the extra cash to fly private, which makes a pretty big difference IMHO. But for the average European Tour player, the purses aren’t as lucrative. Matteo confirmed my assumption that the majority of the guys fly coach. I mean, forget private, they don’t even fly first class, which is what I assumed because it’s so f*cking expensive for international flights.
It sounds stupid, but I was seriously anxious about flying from NYC to Abu Dhabi, after I had major sleeping issues when I went from NYC to Bali and then Bali to Seattle for three days before heading over to Maui. I actually got sick and never recovered. I think Bali-Seattle-Maui was just too much in span of four days. That’s just me, though. Everyone reacts differently and some people are fortunate enough that they adjust easily. I’m jealous and hate you if you’re one of those individuals.
I haven’t slept much this week, but I’m still really enjoying the trip. I’ve already said this a few times, but the Emirati hospitality is unbelievable and everyone has been incredibly welcoming and helpful. Many thanks again to the lovely people from Troon Golf!]