Dustin Johnson grows into No1 role and sets sights on WGC Match Play

Ewan Murray
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Dustin Johnson rose to No1 in the world rankings with his victory in the Genesis Open in February and followed that by winning the WGC Mexico Championship.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Justin Heiman/Getty Images</span>
Dustin Johnson rose to No1 in the world rankings with his victory in the Genesis Open in February and followed that by winning the WGC Mexico Championship. Photograph: Justin Heiman/Getty Images

Dustin Johnson is chasing a treble that would once have looked impossible for one of the great underachievers of this age. Building on last year’s maiden major he has risen to world No1 and is now threatening to develop a stranglehold on the top of the rankings.

Johnson’s success at the Genesis Open in the middle of last month catapulted him to the summit for the first time. At 32, given the widespread and legitimate view that Johnson is the most naturally gifted American player of his generation, the undertone related to his earlier struggles in matching expectation with outcome.

As if to prove this status suits him, Johnson returned to action at the WGC Mexico Championship and duly won again. This week, he is seeking not only a third title in succession but a second WGC, when the match play version gets under way in Austin.

In achieving what has already been the case this year Johnson has defied sceptics in more ways than one. The courses he has won at – Riviera Country Club and Chapultepec – are tests of strategy rather than power. Johnson’s driving distance capacity is such that many onlookers would have hitherto believed he could prevail only at the PGA Tour’s longest, featureless stops.

So if 2014 was the year of McIlroy and 2015 belonged to Jordan Spieth, might 2017 belong to Johnson? “2016, I think, was my year,” the US Open champion answers with a smile. “I was [PGA Tour] player of the year, so I think that worked pretty well. But yeah, this year there’s a lot of guys playing really well already.

“Hideki Matsuyama is playing really well. Justin Thomas is playing really well; he’s won three times already this year so I’ve got a little bit of catching up to do.

“I feel like my game is in very good shape. Starting the beginning of last year, it has felt really solid and it hasn’t really let up any. I’ve got a lot of confidence in the game. I feel like I’m controlling my ball very well and I feel I’m starting to drive a little straighter. If I can drive it straight, I’m going to play well every week. I’m going to continue to work hard, continue to try to get better, but I think right now everything is working pretty well.”

The wider technical point relates to Johnson’s chipping, once a flaw but now dependable. This, plus the experience of finally crossing the major line at Oakmont last June, renders him a live Masters hope. Augusta National, after all, is now little over a fortnight away. The WGC Match Play begins a three-week stretch for Johnson that will conclude in Georgia; he will appear at the Houston Open from Thursday week.

“I don’t mind the extra attention,” Johnson adds. “It’s why I play the game, it’s why I’m here.” It was not always thus; for a long time Johnson was uncomfortable in front of the media, to the point where his press conferences were notable for being so bad. Johnson has not always had it easy; he has been forced to deny claims that he served suspensions from the Tour for failing drugs tests but he did admit “drinking and drinking to excess” earlier in his career.

A change of personal circumstances looks to have affected Johnson’s professional pursuits. He and his partner, Paulina Gretzky – daughter of the ice hockey legend Wayne – are expecting their second son later this year. “Being a father is fantastic,” Johnson says. “We have got another one on the way and that’s very exciting. Me and Paulina are very excited about that. Everybody is healthy and so right now I couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve never really struggled with getting away from golf but it definitely helps, having kids. My priority is him right now and then Paulina and the new one on the way. Before having a son golf would have been my No1 priority, where now he is. But I still focus really hard on golf and work my butt off.”

Results have been proof of that. Whether or not Johnson can ride the crest of this wave towards Augusta will be a matter of great fascination.

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