For as long as I’ve been covering golf — I mean, literally, the first tournament I covered was the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach — one of the story lines seems to have always loomed: Imagine if Dustin Johnson [fill in the blank]. Where do we start? Practiced his wedge game? Prepared better? Read the rules? Better caddie? Stopped partying? Stronger mental game? Stayed patient? Blah, blah blah. The list continues, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as a negative or insult; rather it was always a testament to the indisputable fact DJ was so talented.
Despite some pretty major heartbreaking blips from 2010 at Pebble Beach to Whistling Straits at the 2010 PGA Championship to the 2011 British Open to the 2015 U.S. Open, there’s never been a doubt DJ would eventually overcome these excruciating letdowns. And two of those were seriously devastating mistakes that happened on the 72nd hole, which could have been devastating on a level to an average pro’s psyche. DJ always said he never let them really bring him down and brushed them off. With each incident, DJ showed resiliency to continue put himself in the position to clinch the win…or fail.
For various reasons, I would’ve called BS on almost every other tour pro who had been through so many ups-and-downs (on and off the course) and truly believe he wasn’t lying through his teeth when he said he got over the crushing defeats with ease. In a way, there was an odd poetic justice that when DJ did finally break through to win his first major, naturally, it came attached with an absurd rules debacle and mishandling of the entire situation. Perhaps the USGA was almost “fortunate” that of any player in the world given those circumstances he is on a very short list of guys who would have been able to overcome the hurdle. I guess that’s a long way of saying a lot of players would have crumbled mentally, but DJ brushed it off and just kept playing golf and then all credit to him for the way he closed — that awesome approach on the 72nd hole and then sinking the birdie putt.
DJ, who didn’t even have his A game in the semifinals or finals on Sunday at Austin Country Club, still won the WGC-Match Play Championship for his third straight win in as many starts. He reached the no. 1 world ranking after he won at Riviera, kickstarting his victorious streak and following it up with two more WGC titles. He also became the first player to capture all four World Golf Championships. His game travels. And I know two out of four WGCs are stateside, but DJ won in Shanghai at the HSBCs in 2013 and less than a month ago in Mexico City. It’s also worth noting he was runner-up in Abu Dhabi in January.
This is a long-winded way of getting back to the opening paragraph. No more need to “imagine” if only DJ [fill in the blank], we’re at that point. He’s arrived. We always said, man, it would be scary and then attached the cautionary “if” to DJ’s narrative because despite some distractions and huge heartbreaks, his talent and tremendous athletic ability and “unflappable’ demeanor were undeniable. I mean, the dude still had at least one win every season since 2008 (now 15 total victories on the PGA Tour), and like I mentioned already, he managed to play his way into contention at tons of majors time after time. It truly was a “matter of time” for DJ. I hate that narrative and cliche we assign to so many guys, but I feel like he is the exception in terms of there never being a doubt.
We’re now witnessing the result of DJ actually preparing for tournaments, practicing in a way he’s 100% dialed in, preparing better with regard to strategy, working on his wedge game (which he said last year was the first time he started practicing it with real intention and focus), etc. DJ HAS ARRIVED.
We’re seeing just the start of the results to those “imagine ifs…” He’s a freak of nature. He’s clearly distanced himself as no. 1 in the world. Which is like, duh, if you win three straight events and impressive for him to keep that momentum going for that long.
Comparison of Finalists for the Week
DJ pretty much dominated the first five matches. And on Sunday he was shaky with his wedge play and putting, yet still managed to hold off Hideto Tanihara in the semifinals and then Jon Rahm in the finals 1-up.
“I definitely didn’t play my best today in the first match or the second,” said Johnson. “So to win both those matches not having my best stuff is definitely a positive. And I’m definitely proud of the way I hung in there and played tough and just tried to never give away holes, which I felt like I did a pretty good job of that.”
RUN AND HIDE, EVERYONE! Or it will actually only get the other young stars to work harder to beat DJ and that’s good for everyone.
Johnson’s path to the Championship Final
RD. 1 — Johnson defeated Webb Simpson, 5 and 3
RD. 2 – Johnson defeated Martin Kaymer, 3 and 2
RD. 3 – Johnson defeated Jimmy Walker, 5 and 3
RD. of 16 – Johnson defeated Zach Johnson, 5 and 4
QF. – Johnson defeated Alex Noren, 3 and 2
SF. – Johnson defeated Tanihara, 1 up
Final – Johnson defeated Rahm, 1 up
“I’m very, very pleased with (the win),” said Johnson in his post-round presser. “I’m very pleased with my play this week. And it was a long week.
“A lot longer match this afternoon than I would have liked it to have been. But Jon was a great competitor and it was a great match.”
Johnson was five-up after 10, so the fact that Rahm managed to stretch that match out to the 18th hole is also very telling of the young Spaniard.
“It’s impossible to win every week,” said DJ, referring to his current streak. “I know that. Obviously I’ve won my last three. But I’m just going to have to keep working hard. Keep working on the things that I’m working on right now. And just keep trying to get better.
“Like I was saying before, being No. 1, it kind of drives me to work harder and to get better. There’s still a lot of room for improvement in my game. So I’m just going to keep working on it.”
And what do you need to work on, DJ?
“Everything,” he said without hesitation and almost with a hint of a sigh, like omg, I could improve so much, which again, another scary thought. “I think I can get better with all aspects of the game.
“Wedges can definitely get better. Definitely the mid-irons. My wedges are good, I’ve got a lot of confidence in them, but I think I definitely could be more spot on with them. And then the mid-irons, for sure. But everything else — I feel like I’m driving it really well right now, so I need to keep doing that. I think that’s a big part of my game. If I hit the driver well then I usually am going to play pretty good.”
He appears to also play with more of a game plan in mind. Like on the 18th today, “old” DJ may have hit driver after seeing Rahm do so. [Insert one of the many kinda funny stories his peers have when witnessing DJ and his caddie, who is also his brother AJ, try to work out the math, which always had the same ending: DJ getting frustrated/impatient and just pulling driver.] He has a system now and is dialed in. But instead of driver, he made the smart, conservative play because he now has much more trust with his wedge game.
Then, there’s that other big component to winning: Confidence.
“I believe in my ability,” he said. “And I know what it takes to win out here. I definitely have what it takes to win out here. I still feel like I’m not playing my best golf. But I’m playing really well, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel like I’m playing my best. But I’m not surprised with the number of wins I’ve had in the last, whatever, ten months or however long it’s been.”
DJ is scheduled to play this upcoming week’s Shell Houston Open as his last warm-up to the Masters, which is the week after. Holy crap, that came up quickly! I really wouldn’t mind if things slowed down a bit, like it would be awesome if next week goes by real slow. Just saying.
But I digress. DJ isn’t sure if he’ll still play in Houston.
“Ask me that in the morning when I wake up,” he said. “But as of right now I’m playing and I’m planning on going there. But I’ll probably — I’ll get there Tuesday night, I would imagine, if I’m going to go. But, yeah, as of right now I’m planning on being there.”
Summary of final match via PGA Tour media notes:
Championship Match (112) – Dustin Johnson defeated Jon Rahm, 1 up
With solid play over the first eight holes, Dustin Johnson also capitalized on errors by Jon Rahm to surge to a 5-up led through eight holes. Rahm fought back, winning the 9th and 10th, before losing the 12th to a Johnson birdie, with Johnson leading 4 up. Rahm began a charge by driving the green at the 293-yard 13th and 2-putting to win the hole. The pair halved No. 14 with pars. Rahm birdied No. 15 after stuffing his approach to three feet. He also won the 16th with a birdie from 32 feet. The duo halved No. 17 with pars to head to the final hole with Johnson 1 up. Rahm, with the honor, hit a tee shot that traveled 382 yards and finished over the green. Johnson was on the front apron in two shots, 22 feet from the hole when Rahm, disturbed by a slamming door nearby, hit a poor chip to 36 feet. Rahm’s birdie putt traveled six feet past. Johnson lagged to three feet. After Rahm holed his par putt, Johnson made his putt for the title.
Jon Rahm, the 22-year-old rookie who hasn’t waited to long to make his mark and name known, deserves tons of credit for his scrambling in the final match and never letting down. I love this kid’s confidence. Some might call it arrogance, but he’s got game and backs it up, so all I have is respect. I think many other rookies might have been intimidated by falling five-down to the world’s no 1, but not Rahm — he fought to keep his hopes alive (albeit, chances seemed dim) and take the match to the 18th. (Shout-out to DJ’s opponent in the semifinals to when Hideto Tanihara didn’t let down, either, after being 3-down through seven holes.)
“The first two holes I was very confident, playing great,” said Rahm in his post-round presser. “And after that drive on No. 3 that kicked through straight to the high grass, things started to go — just plummeted. I was trying to do the best I could, but just things weren’t happening, unfortunately for me.”
Rahm had high praise for DJ, too.
“What am I going to say that you guys don’t know?” said Rahm, smiling. “If his putter had have been hot, I wouldn’t have had a chance, no question. If he had made any putts this morning or in the front nine, I would not have had a chance to maybe get to 14, honestly. Luckily for me he was short on a couple of them or misread a couple of them and I made them.
“But, man, I mean what’s to say, his power off the tee, it’s amazing how he’s able to keep cool the entire round. It amazes me. And he’s just a perfect, complete player. Honestly, he doesn’t really make mistakes. I think he’s learned from what he’s done in the past and he’s embracing it now and that’s why he’s winning tournaments.”
Game respect game.
If you were watching the telecast, then there was a noticeable, unexpected loud noise that unfortunately coincided with Rahm’s backswing during his chip on the 18th. It obviously distracted him, but he had the perfect response when asked about the incident.
Q. Obviously some things are out of your control. I was just wondering if you heard the loud crash behind the 18th green while you were about to address that chip and if you did, did it mess with your shot at all?
JON RAHM: You mean the one on my backswing? (Laughter).
I did hear it. And you hope those things don’t bother you, but unfortunately for me it did. I got my eyes off the ball for a second. Even that small portion of a second had I thought of stopping, I would have. But I didn’t. I committed to the shot and once I moved my eyes, my balance went off and I chucked it.
I wish I could go back and hit it over the slope 15, 20 feet left. But it’s just things that happen, honestly. It won’t be the last time I have a noise on my swing on the last hole. It’s certainly the first time that I hear it. It’s golf. It happens.
I love Rahm’s attitude and energy. He knows he’s good, but he’s not like an annoying cocky punk. He’s got spunk and he’s likable. And I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this, but he made a late run in the penultimate group to challenge DJ on the back nine on Sunday in Mexico. He ended up finishing T3, but it was certainly way more exciting and kept it intriguing for longer than expected. After the tourney, this is what he tweeted:
Great playing @DJohnsonPGA. I look forward to a Sunday rematch soon. I wouldn’t mind if it happens at a place called Augusta National.
— Jon Rahm Rodriguez (@JonRahmpga) March 6, 2017
So, it’s happened a few weeks early, but who knows, maybe it was just a small preview to what we’ll see in two Sundays? Maybe if we’re lucky? Love how Rahm embraces the challenge and doesn’t back down. I know this is also kind of an annoying narrative and I don’t even want to start with the adjectives used to describe him — we all know what they are and we can come up with a new drinking game, etc.
Regardless of what happens this upcoming week in Houston, it’s already settled that DJ will be the man to beat at Augusta National for the first major of the year. The question now is does Dustin have the full skill set — strategy, mental chess, so to speak — to take on and successfully conquer at Augusta National? I used to think he would dominate there, but his wedge game wasn’t good enough. However, this was years ago and now is a totally different story, but I’ll chill with the overhype. I still like Jordan Spieth’s chances more.