The only certainty relating to Dustin Johnson’s epic run is that it will come to an end. Even recent history tells us that much. Fascination and uncertainty relate to precisely when the world No1’s streak will conclude and, more pertinently, if it can be sustained to the point where the 32-year-old wins the Masters for the first time.
Johnson’s statistics make stunning reading. Victory at the WGC Match Play in Austin was his third in three starts. Since last June, when Johnson won his first major by claiming the US Open, he has lifted six trophies from 17 events played.
Perhaps this has cost more energy than Johnson had anticipated; on Monday evening it was announced he has withdrawn from this week’s Houston Open. Maybe Johnson needed some time to count his swag; from mid-February he has banked more than $4.5m in prize money.
Butch Harmon, Johnson’s coach, is among those to draw comparisons with the greatest player of this generation, Tiger Woods. Harmon speaks from a position of authority; he coached Woods when in his prime. “He drives it great, like Tiger back in the day,” says Harmon. “He’s a good putter, not great, but good. He has learned to hit irons off tees which I’ve been pushing for seven years and has a three-iron with a graphite shaft that he hits miles. He really now has become the total package. And nothing rattles him, that is a big plus.”
While this praise is legitimate there should be no assumption that Johnson’s results are unique or that he will automatically prevail at Augusta National on Sunday week. “I don’t care,” said Johnson on Sunday night when asked what difference short-priced favouritism for the first major of the year makes to him. Perhaps it is just as well.
This time last year Jason Day was in the midst of supposedly unstoppable form. Day, by winning in Austin, took his total to seven victories in 17 events. In 2015 Jordan Spieth’s triumphs at the Masters and US Open were preceded by the Valspar Championship and backed up by the John Deere Classic and Tour Championship. A year earlier Rory McIlroy won three times in succession, two of those successes coming in majors.
Day, Spieth and McIlroy had established themselves as the No1 player in the world – temporarily, as it transpired. Johnson at least has the strength of ranking advantage that he will remain No1 post-Augusta, regardless of what happens there.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence now,” Johnson said. “Confidence in my game and confidence in myself. I just need to keep working on it, keep trying to get better and keep working hard.
“I’m not surprised with the number of wins I’ve had in the last 10 months. I believe in my ability. And I know what it takes to win out here. I definitely have what it takes. I still feel like I’m not playing my best golf. I’m playing really well, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel like I’m playing my best.”
A glance at the Masters roll of honour shows one must go back to 2005 and Woods for the last time a pre-tournament favourite prevailed. Among the quirks in the meantime are four wins by left-handed players plus repeat successes for Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.
Danny Willett, Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson were rank outsiders at the time they donned a Green Jacket. Watson, Mickelson, Adam Scott and Spieth might have been heavily fancied but did not enjoy anything like the 5-1 odds available on Johnson right now.
The obvious explanation for this relates to the Masters narrative. It is easy for players – McIlroy and Day have conceded as much in the past – to place too much pressure on themselves given the elongated lead-up to Augusta. Eight months pass between the US PGA Championship and the Masters after all.
Another crucial element is course specialism. Augusta demands specific qualities far removed from other courses and, the case of Spieth aside, garnered only through considerable experience. Johnson, for example, could never have been considered a live Masters hope before the improvement in his chipping which has been so clear in the past year.
He is quite obviously the form horse as the Masters edges towards its 81st edition. Yet golf, and particularly this major, has never been played on paper. Johnson would be wise to keep himself detached from fevered expectation.