PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler among rivals who admit chasing down Dustin Johnson is getting harder

January 08, 2018

Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

KAPALUA, Hawaii — The signature shot from Dustin Johnson’s eight-stroke romp at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he came within a stroke of tying the tournament’s largest margin of victory set by David Duval in 1999, was a drive on the par-4 12th that went 432 yards, 9 inches. The hole measures 433 yards.

The near ace/tap-in eagle was emblematic of the difficulty of trying to chase down Johnson when he’s at or near his best.

At the 7,400-yard, par-73 Plantation Course, Johnson averaged just under 325 yards a clip off the tee, led the field in strokes gained/off the tee, missed just five greens over his final 36 holes and, over the four days, ranked sixth in strokes gained/putting. His +4.09 strokes gained/off the tee during the final round, when he shot 65 to leave the field in his wake, was the best measured round off the tee in the history of the event.

Johnson also made three eagles for the week, and he hasn’t had a three-putt since the 13th hole of the fourth round of last year’s Tour Championship.

“He’s obviously the No. 1 player in the world, and that doesn’t happen by chance,” said Rickie Fowler, who coming into the week had finished first and second in his previous two starts but finished 10 shots back of Johnson on the Valley Isle. “He’s one of the best. Obviously right now, you look back at the past 12 to 24 months and he’s the best player in the world.”

The performance was reminiscent of how Johnson was playing in the early part of 2017, when he finished third at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-am then rattled off three straight wins at Riviera, Mexico and the WGC-Dell Match Play.

Then came a few slippery steps in his rented house in Augusta. Wearing just socks, Johnson lost his balance and fell, injuring his back and knocking himself out of the Masters. “When I landed I thought I broke my back,” Johnson said on Sunday. “I knew I was hurt.” It took him about five months to get over it, physically and mentally.

He won’t be staying there this year.

He is, however, playing similarly to how he was before the injury.

“The game is definitely as close as it’s been to the level that it was for that stretch when it was at that level,” Johnson said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in my game. I’m hitting the shots I want to hit. For the most part [this week] all the shots I hit were the shots I wanted to hit.”

That included on 12, which was on the line Johnson was aiming for.

“I guess the most difficult part is trying to stay within your own game,” said Jordan Spieth, trying to explain the struggle of trying to beat Johnson when his game is on. “Not play off his.”

But it’s not just Johnson’s physical tools that make him such a threat to add to his win total or stay No. 1 in the world for the long haul.   “He’s not someone that typically will come back,” Fowler said. “Very rarely, in a 54-hole situation does he ever throw one away.”

At one point in Johnson’s career, that wasn’t the case. Recall the 2010 U.S. Open, 2010 PGA Championship, 2011 British Open and the 2015 U.S. Open. But more recently, Johnson has seized the Sunday moment, which is why last fall in China seemed so strange. He led by six going into the final round, the victory seemingly a formality, but shot closing 77. Not that he recalled much of it.

Like a closer in baseball, DJ has a gift in having a short memory. It’s a terrific strength, particularly in golf.

Much to the chagrin of all those chasing him.