In a hard-fought battle between three world-class players, Dustin Johnson clinched the most significant victory of his career (so far) at the HSBC Champions at Sheshan International Golf Club. On the back nine the 29-year-old American played a key stretch of five holes at five-under, including a chip-in on the short par-4 16th.
“Well, that was fun,” said Dustin on nos. 13-17. “The first five holes were not fun. Especially I missed a short putt on no. 1, and then into not birdieing no. 2 with a 6-iron in, that was pretty bad, just a poor shot.
“So I wasn’t having too much fun at the start, especially when Graeme (McDowell) and Ian (Poulter), they were birdieing every hole it seemed like starting out.”
Johnson holed birdies on nos. 8 and 9 to get back in the game and made the turn at 1-under. The turning point happened at no. 14 when DJ dropped a 20-footer to match the Englishman and remain locked at 21-under with Poulter, the defending champion, who had just tapped-in for birdie.
DJ, who snagged his eighth-career win, came up big with a chip-in for eagle on the short par-4 16th. He laid up just short of the green with a 3-iron and then as he prepared for the right-to-left breaking chip from about 20 yards, he had a look in his eye as if he saw the line precisely to the hole. Indeed, he did.
“I knew on 16, I just needed to hit a good tee shot, which I hit it perfect,” said Johnson. “And the pitch shot, I was talking to my brother (Austin Johnson) right before I hit it. I said, ‘I think I’m going to make this one.’ I hit the pitch just perfect and it went right in the middle.
“That was huge, and especially to have a two-shot lead going into 17; and I hit a great shot to 17 about seven or eight feet and holed that putt.”
As we walked up ahead to no. 17, Justin Rose, who was playing in the group ahead, strolled past us to toward the 18th tee, nodded in our direction and said, “Good battle!”
He had heard the roar coming from the previous hole.
Johnson, who double-bogeyed the 18th in the third round, certainly wasn’t going to make the same mistake again by hitting his tee shot into the water on the 72nd hole. He played it safe and teed off with another 3-iron.
“And then to have a three-shot lead going into 18, that’s right where I want to be. I think someone asked me earlier in the week, you know, if you’ve got a three-shot lead, what are you doing on 18.
“I said I’m going to hit 3-iron off the tee, and I did, which is perfect. I couldn’t get there unless I hit a perfect drive, and after hitting it in the water yesterday, I wasn’t hitting driver.”
Johnson, who opened 2013 with a win at the weather-shortened 54-hole Hyundai Tournament of Champions, also starts the new wraparound calendar schedule 2013-14 season with a victory.
This one was especially significant out of the seven other wins in his career.
“Getting off this year with a win is definitely huge, especially winning WGC-HSBC,” said Johnson. “It’s my biggest win I’ve had so far in my career, and you know, it feels really good.
“Especially (since) I put a lot of work in this year, and I’ve struggled a lot. I won the first event of the year and I struggled a little bit through the end. But you know, I’ve been putting in a lot of work the last month or two, and you know, it definitely feels really good to get a win and get off to a good start this year.”
Saturday’s poor finish with double-bogeys on nos. 10 and 18 left a sour taste in Johnson’s mouth, but he learned from it and stayed patient coming down the stretch — something that he’s been criticized for lacking in the past during big moments, like at the 2010 U.S. Open, the 2010 PGA Championship and the 2011 Open Championship, to name a few.
“It takes a while to learn (patience and maturity), especially I wish I would have had some a few times a few years ago,” he said. “But you learn from your mistakes and you try to get better from them and I think I showed a lot of patience out there and a lot of discipline with different clubs and shot selection. I played really solid today.”
Johnson was most proud of the way he played and conducted his nerves over the last several holes.
“It was a good match from both of them,” he said. “They put a lot of pressure on me, but I’m really proud of myself the way I handled it and the way I finished.”
It was also special for Dustin to have his fiancee Paulina Gretzky supporting him in China, along with his brother Austin on the bag. Johnson’s regular caddie (who is probably kicking himself for losing out on his 10% of the winner’s check) Bobby Brown stayed home because DJ asked his brother to caddie for him in Australia and then Austin went with Dustin and Paulina to Thailand.
“I just called Bob and said there’s no point for him to fly all the way over here for this one week, especially he just had a new baby,” he said. “So I told him just to stay home with the kid.”
So, what’s next for Dustin? A major? Finally?
“This is probably my biggest win, and with the field and the tournament, World Golf Championships,” said Johnson. “Hopefully there’s just better things to come.”
With two events left in the European Tour’s version of the FedExCup, the Race to Dubai, Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose round up the top, remaining the same as they were heading into Shanghai. Ian Poulter made a significant move up to fourth in the standings.
Although McDowell just had five weeks off, he’s skipping next week’s event ind Turkey to spend time with his new wife Kristin Stape McDowell and stepdaughter.
“I don’t want to be on the road for five weeks because I’m going to play World Cup the week after Dubai,” said McDowell after posting a six-under 66. “I just don’t want to be away from the wife and from the family for five weeks, you know. It’s just a tough time of the year.
“I’ve done the last six, seven weeks on the spin stuff and I’m just trying to be sensible. I want to be fresh going into Dubai. I don’t need to rest, but I don’t want to spend that long on the road.”
Meanwhile, Stenson, who won the FedExCup last month, is still leading Europe’s wheelbarrow race. After opening with disappointing rounds of 74-76, Stenson came out firing over the weekend, posting rounds of 67-65. His five-under 67 even included a four-putt double-bogey on his second-to-last hole.
The Swede pointed out with Rose, McDowell and Poulter in the hunt for the Race to Dubai, it was a fight against three of his close friends and neighbors at Lake Nona in Orlando.
“It’s going to be real tight — nice and friendly,” quipped Stenson. “I’ve got my neighbors chasing me. Someone was going to come after me or a couple of them…It could be the Nona Championship the last week in Dubai.
“I will always support my mates, it’s just going to come down to who plays well and I just haven’t played well these two weeks. Someone was always going to make a move. We’ll see what happens. We’re having a laugh at the same time.”
Rory McIlroy shot a three-under 69 and placed T6 to move safely well inside the top 60 in the Race to Dubai. Prior to the HSBC Champions, there was a chance he could miss the European Tour finale.
“I have three more tournaments left this year and I want to try to finish the season strongly,” said the former world no. 1. “Obviously have good memories going to Dubai from winning there last year, so hopefully I can put up a strong defense of my title there.”
McIlroy, who beat Tiger Woods in an exhibition match earlier in the week at Mission Hills, sees the top ten as another sign of progress and something to build on in his quest to secure a win in 2013.
“I still think there’s a good bit of work that needs to be done to my game, but it’s all heading in the right direction,” he said.
The annual Caddie Awards were announced at a player-caddie banquet on Friday evening. The top honor for Caddie of the Year went to Phil Mickelson’s looper, Jim “Bones” Mackay.
The other awards are less serious and basically a chance for the boys to take the piss out of each other — which means they’re also quite funny.
Worst Dressed: Jon McLaren for his high socks (Luke Donald)
Most Vain: Ken Comboy for being quite possibly the sloppiest (Graeme McDowell)
Most Frugal: Wayne Husselbury for being a “minge-bag” — his words, not mine! (David Lynn)
Best Switch: Gareth Lord for switching from Thomas Bjorn to ATM machine Henrik Stenson at the start of the year (Lord also won the honor in 2011 when he switched over to Bjorn)
Best Excuse: Mick Donaghy for needing to go #2 during Wednesday’s pro-am and not finding the loo in time. He’s lucky his mate went out of his way to bring him a clean pair of shorts for the rest of the round. (Jamie Donaldson)
WINNER’S CIRCLE RANDOM FACTS AND STATS: DUSTIN JOHNSON