Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 5, 2017

An Important Win, But Not Yet A New Era

When Dustin Johnson climbed to the top of the Official World Golf Rankings two weeks ago, he became just the twentieth man to hold the top spot since the rankings were introduced in the spring of 1986. World number ones run from Bernhard Langer, then the 28-year old reigning Masters champion to Johnson, now the holder of the U.S. Open trophy and winner of five PGA Tour events since last June, with just eighteen others in between. That relatively small number have laid claim to the number one ranking over thirty years because for long stretches during that time men’s golf has been dominated by one or at most two players.

Langer held the top spot for just three weeks before he was dethroned at the end of April 1986 by the elegant Spanish escape artist Seve Ballesteros. Then began a period of more than four years when the number one ranking was the exclusive province of just two men, Ballesteros and Australia’s Greg Norman. Twice during that period Norman topped the list for more than an entire year. When Nick Faldo surpassed Norman and began the first of his four stints as number one in September 1990, Norman had spent a total of 182 weeks as the official best golfer in the world. While Faldo and several other golfers took their turns at the top through the 1990s, the player known as the Great White Shark never fell very far down the list. When Norman spent his last week as number one in January 1998, it was his was his 331st week in that position.

He was replaced by Tiger Woods, who had already supplanted Norman for brief periods twice before in 1997. Within eighteen months the Woods era was in full flight. He became number one for the seventh time in August 1999, and stayed there for more than five years. A little later in the decade he broke his own record, holding the top ranking for 281 weeks from June 2005 to October 2010.

But the recent history of men’s golf has been very different. It was five years ago this week that Rory McIlroy moved to the top of the list for the first time. With DJ’s recent ascension, in those five years the number one ranking has changed hands nineteen times, with seven different golfers able to say that they were number one. The average stay at the top during this period has been thirteen weeks, and twelve times a number one golfer has held on to the ranking for a month or less.

This extended period of multiple golfers contending for the top spot could be looked at as the best possible situation, an embarrassment of riches for the game. But many golf fans and not a few pundits, used to having a single dominant force in their game, seem to long for a return to the days of one player ruling the landscape. Long before the preeminent sports agent Mark McCormack came up with the idea of the rankings, golf was identified by its leading player. So Ben gave way to Sam, then Arnie yielded to Jack, next Tom was supplanted by Greg, until at last Tiger came along.

Against that backdrop the recent churning at the top of the rankings seems out of place. All the more so because in addition to players one can immediately name – Rory and Jason, Jordan and Dustin, the top spot in the past five years has also been held by the likes of Luke Donald, despite the fact that the Englishman has never won a major. So it’s not surprising that when Johnson finally seized the number one position a fortnight ago there were more than a handful of observers in the golf media predicting that DJ was the one to dominate the rest and end the period of frequent changes at the top of the rankings.

This weekend Johnson returned to the links after a week off, and the results of the WGC – Mexico Championship both strengthened the case being made by those pundits and showed how tenuous it remains. Johnson won the tournament, firing a final round 68 to pass 54-hole leader Justin Thomas and claim the title at 14-under par. In doing so he became just the fifth world number one to win in his first time out after climbing to the top of the rankings. The victory was also Johnson’s fourth at a World Golf Championships event. That’s more wins at the prestigious limited field events than anyone not named Tiger Woods. By winning he of course gained the most ranking points this week, thus opening up some space between himself and everyone else. That will be especially true over number two Jason Day, who was the only top player not inside the ropes at the Club de Golf Chapultepec outside Mexico City, having withdrawn because of illness.

But before proclaiming the arrival of the DJ era it’s worth looking a little more closely at how the WGC – Mexico Championship unfolded. Johnson appeared to have seized control of the tournament by the time he made the turn with Thomas and McIlroy in the final threesome. Having started the day one behind he had moved four shots ahead. Johnson started the final round leading the field in several tee to green statistics, but was in the middle of the pack in putting metrics. Then he rolled in birdie putts of fifteen feet on the 3rd and six feet on the 6th. He added a twenty-nine foot bomb on the 8th and then sank an eight footer on the 9th to go out in 4-under par.

Yet just as the back nine was looking like a comfortable stroll to victory, the afternoon turned tense. Playing in the group ahead of Johnson, Jon Rahm reached the 622 yard par-5 11th hole in two, then found the cup with his fifteen foot putt for eagle. That sliced into Johnson’s lead, and he quickly gave more of it away by missing a short par putt on the 12th hole. When he badly under clubbed on the par-3 13th, resulting in a second straight bogey even as Rahm was holing out from the fringe on the 14th, the two were tied at 13-under.

Rahm even briefly claimed sole possession of first place with a birdie at the 14th, though that lasted only as long as it took Johnson to play the same hole. In the end the 22-year old Spaniard faded with two late bogeys. But one more group ahead, Tommy Fleetwood sank a cross-country putt from nearly forty feet at the home hole to get to 13-under and force Johnson to execute a brilliant shot from an awkward stance in a fairway bunker at the last, thus saving par and a one shot win.

That he executed that shot and won the tournament are certainly marks of a champion. But Rahm needed just four events to win enough money to earn his PGA Tour card, and won earlier this year in San Diego in just his twelfth Tour start. Phil Mickelson has called him “one of the best players in the world.” Runner-up Fleetwood beat Johnson by a stroke at a European Tour event in January, and currently leads that tour’s money list. And those are two players most fans don’t know. Jason Day was ill this week, not dead. McIlroy returned from a six week absence rehabbing a hairline fracture to a rib to finish just four back. Jordan Spieth finished tied for 12th, just the second time this season he’s been out of the top ten. And third round leader Thomas was going for his fourth win in this still-young season. All of the PGA Tour advertising during the tournament featured the familiar slogan, “these guys are good.” That’s these guys, not just this guy. Why any fan should think that’s a bad thing is beyond me.

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