The championship match of the 2017 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play will be a bombers’ paradise, with the week’s two hottest players—Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm—squaring off for the title at Austin Country Club.
Johnson defeated Japan’s Hideto Tanihara, 1 up, during Sunday morning’s semifinal match, looking for the first time a bit vulnerable after spending most of his time in Texas seeming to be every bit the World’s No. 1-ranked player.
Johnson held a 3-up lead through seven holes, but saw the advantage disappear on the back nine as he suffered a handful of painful lip outs on several pivotal holes.
Only after rolling his six-foot birdie try on the par-3 17th—in the center of the cup—did Johnson finally take the lead for good, closing out the match with a tricky up-and-down for par on the 18th hole—the first time he had played it all week.
Johnson got off to his usual fast start against Tanihara, the 54th seed, winning the first hole for the sixth time in six tries. It continued a streak in which he has never trailed in any match all week.
Yet Tanihara, trying to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the WGC-Match Play’s history, hung around. Birdies on the eighth, 13th and 14th holes squared the match.
Both players appeared to give away holes at times. Tanihara was putting for eagle on the par-5 12th to try and square the match, only to three-putt and go back to 2 down. Johnson, meanwhile, had a six-foot par putt to win the 15th hole and take back the lead, only to lip the putt out left.
Despite Johnson taking the lead on the 17th, it looked as if the match might go extra holes when he hit his approach on the par-4 18th—a hole DJ hasn’t played all week—short and in the rough, while Tanihara was safely on the green inside 18 feet. But Tanihara failed to make his birdie try and Johnson, after hitting a chip to seven feet, rolled in the par save to move on.
“It was a tough match,” said Johnson, who is looking for his third straight PGA Tour title in three starts after wins at the Genesis Open and the WGC-Mexico Championship. “I felt like a played really well. I hit a lot of great putts on the back nine. I hit the hole on 10, 11, 14, 15, 16. I mean, I hit great putts just nothing would go in. I finally made two putts on 17 and 18 to win the match. But man it was a tough one.”
About the only golfer seeming to play with more confidence than Johnson this week has been Rahm. The 22-year-old PGA Tour rookie cruised to a 3-and-2 victory over Bill Haas, using not just his distance off the tee but a solid putting stroke to take out his opponent.
Since winning the Farmers Insurance Open in January, his first PGA Tour win, Rahm has posted a T-16 finish in Phoenix, T-5 at Pebble Beach and T-3 at the WGC-Mexico Championship, losing to Johnson by two strokes.
After the match, Rahm noted that he would be fine playing either Johnson or Tanihara, but a match-up with the World No. 1 would be more appetizing.
“Honestly, it would be great to play DJ,” Rahm said. “Obviously ever since Mexico, I’ve been wanting that kind of rematch. I’ve put it on social media. I think it would be a great match for how great a player he is.”