Dustin Johnson enters rarified air

11/05/2013 12:25 AM

11/05/2013 12:26 AM

Dustin Johnson is starting to compile the kind of numbers that are difficult to ignore.

Not since Tiger Woods has a player won on the PGA Tour in each of his first seven seasons. To have eight tour wins before turning 30 puts him in select company that includes names such as Woods, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and David Duval over the past 25 years.

He hasn’t won a major, though getting into serious contention should not be overlooked. Johnson had the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open, a one-shot lead playing the 72nd hole in the PGA Championship and he was closing in on the lead in the final round at the British Open until hitting a 2-iron out-of-bounds on the 14th hole at Royal St. George’s.

What annoys the former Dutch Fork High and Coastal Carolina golfer is another attribute of great players — they’re part of every team.

The Presidents Cup was held a month ago, and Johnson wasn’t on it. He was barely part of the conversation when it was time for Fred Couples to make his captain’s picks.

“I was mad,” Johnson said after his three-shot win in the HSBC Champions, his first World Golf Championship title. “I wanted to be on that team. I wasn’t mad at anyone, but I was mad at myself for not being on the team. I struggled a little bit last year, but I thought I still played well enough to get on the team. I think I finished 12th on the points list. I could have been a pick.”

Couples instead chose 20-year-old Jordan Spieth and Webb Simpson, who had been bumped out of the 10th spot on the final hole of a two-year qualifying process.

It would be hard to fault Couples, even though Johnson is one of the most explosive players.

Johnson began the year by winning at Kapalua, and then he disappeared for the rest of the season. He really had only one serious chance of winning, when he tied for second in the Canadian Open, although he got into the last group at the Tour Championship. He didn’t make a peep in the majors.

About the only time he got anyone’s attention was when he proposed to Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of the Great One.

Four days at Sheshan International was a reminder that the 29-year-old American is still around, still very good and capable of beating the best. Johnson was too busy making birdies to pay attention to the players chasing him Sunday afternoon — Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter next to him, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer trying to catch him. That’s half of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team at Medinah last year.

Johnson made three birdies and an eagle during a pivotal five-hole stretch on the back nine, and what got McDowell’s attention was how that streak started on the 13th hole, which bends hard to the right and has water to the right of the green.

“To me it kind of personifies Dustin Johnson,” McDowell said. “He trenches one 350 down the middle and has the hands to hit that 70-yard shot to the front pin and make the putt. He’s just a quality, talented, very athletic, classy player. Yeah, he makes mistakes. But when you’ve got a game as good as him, you can get away with a few mistakes.”

McDowell played with Johnson the first two rounds, and it was Friday’s 63 that led McDowell to say that “what’s possible for an athlete like him who just rips it, that’s not what’s possible for the rest of us sometimes.”

“When he’s in the mood and when he’s on form, he’s pretty prolific,” he said.

That’s the catch with Johnson. When he’s in the mood. When he’s on form.

Johnson doesn’t always make the best choices. When he won at Kapalua this year, he nearly squandered a three-shot lead on the back nine by hitting driver when it wasn’t necessary. He made double bogey to let Steve Stricker back in the game, and then Johnson pulled out driver without hesitation on the next hole, even though it was into a strong wind and the slightest miss could have been lost in waist-high grass.

He ripped that so long and straight that he chipped in for eagle.

There is a thickness to Johnson that would seem to be his biggest liability — not thinking clearly over shots, or being stubborn. That’s actually his strength. Few other players can make a blunder and hit the next shot like it never happened. He hit his drive into the water right of the 18th fairway on Saturday, and the next tee shot hugged the right side of the fairway until drawing back into the fairway.

What can’t be overlooked is eight wins at age 29, the most of any player under 30. Johnson won’t add to that total this year, for the HSBC was his final official event of 2013. The majors will be the focus for him. He realizes that’s the next step.

In the meantime, he won $1.4 million, which moves him up to No. 3 in the Ryder Cup standings. He is still smarting from not being at Muirfield Village for the Presidents Cup last month. As for the Ryder Cup? Johnson lifted his head from signing flags and smiled.

“I’m going to be on that Ryder Cup team,” he said. “For sure.”

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