For a while during Sunday’s 18-hole final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the showdown everyone wanted, Dustin Johnson versus Jon Rahm, didn’t look like it would live up to the hype. Not after Johnson won five of six holes on the front nine and looked like he was cruising to an easy victory.
As it turned out, there was nothing easy about it. While Johnson walked away the champion, winning 1 up, it was only after Rahm made things interesting with a series of impressive back-nine birdies.
A win is a win, however, and Johnson certainly knows plenty about those. His triumph over Rahm capped a week in which the 32-year-old reigning PGA Tour player of the year never trailed in any of his seven individual matches and was all square for just seven of 112 holes.
With the victory, Johnson grabbed his third straight PGA Tour title since moving to No. 1 on the World Ranking last month, his fifth WGC crown overall (while becoming the first player to win all four WGC titles) and the 15th tour win of his career.
And even with the closer-than-expected call on Sunday, if you’re looking for a favorite heading into the Masters, you’ve found him.
Johnson, the event’s top seed, certainly started strong on Sunday, but he was helped by the fact that Rahm, the 21st seed, appeared nervous to start the championship match. The 22-year-old Spanish upstart’s solid putting suddenly went balky, and his driver and approach shots just weren’t as crisp as when he was rattling off victories of 6 and 4 over Charles Howell III in the Round of 16, 7 and 5 over Soren Kjeldsen in the quarterfinals and 3 and 2 over Bill Haas in the semifinals.
The trouble began early for Rahm, when he missed a five-footer for par on the par-4 third to halve the hole. Then on the par-3 fourth, Rahm hit the green off the tee, but three-putted from 39 feet to fall 2 down. A missed six-footer for birdie on the fifth hole cost Rahm again, and then, on the par-5 sixth hole, Rahm missed the green badly with his second shot and couldn’t get up and down to halve the hole after Johnson made birdied, giving DJ a 4-up lead.
But Rahm didn’t give up, winning the ninth and 10th holes with pars to cut his deficit to 3 down. After losing the par-5 12th hole, Rahm went for the green on the drivable par-4 13th, with its 290-yard carry over water. His tee shot settled on the green, and his two-putt birdie won the hole. Then he won the par-4 15th and par-5 16th with birdies to make things truly interesting.
The pair halved the 17th hole with pars, and then Rahm, with the honor on the 18th tee, drove over the green on the par-4 home hole, a tee shot that traveled 382 yards. But his second shot failed to get closer than 30 feet from the hole, and Rahm failed to roll in the birdie try, allowing Johnson to halve the hole and win the match with a par.
As for Johnson his week was among the more impressive for a WGC-Match Play winner in tournament history. Only Tanihara and Rahm extended him past the 16th hole in any of his seven matches. And in six of the seven Johnson won the first hole. In other words, from the start, Johnson gave his opponent’s little room for optimism.
That’s something he hopes will carry over in two weeks at Augusta National.