In what felt like the end of a long year and beginning of a new season, Johnson broke loose from a three-way battle on the back nine by playing a five-hole stretch in 5-under par. He closed with a 6-under 66 for a three-shot win over Ian Poulter to capture his first World Golf Championship title.
“It’s the biggest win I’ve had in my career so far,” he said. “Those guys put a lot of pressure on me. I’m really proud of the way I handled myself.”
This one required a little bit of everything.
One shot behind with six holes to play, he smashed his drive over the corner of a dogleg on the 13th hole that left him a short wedge into 5 feet for birdie to catch Poulter. Right when it looked as though he would fall behind again, Johnson holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the next hole.
It was a pitch-in for eagle that effectively won the tournament.
With a one-shot lead playing the par-4 16th, Johnson hit a 3-iron about 25 yards short of the green with a front pin. The pitch was perfect, rolling into the cup like it was a putt. Johnson raised his left hand and pumped his right fist. And when he waved to acknowledge the Chinese fans, they instinctively waved back, as if Johnson were the star attraction in a parade.
That he was, and there were plenty of stars.
For most of the back nine, the top seven players on the leaderboards consisted of Johnson and half of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team from Medinah.
Poulter and Graeme McDowell, who each had a share of the lead at some point, looked capable of winning until Johnson’s late heroics. Right behind them were Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer, all firing away with birdies on a soft course but unable to catch up.
Poulter and McDowell each closed with a 66, the same score as Johnson.
McDowell went 64-64 on the weekend without making a bogey and still lost by four. It was the start of that amazing stretch by Johnson that he recalled most clearly.
“He trenches one 350 down the middle and has the hands to that 70-yard shot to the front pin and make the putt,” McDowell said. “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. He’s just got a great wedge game to go with just an outrageously good driving game.”
Johnson set the tournament record at 24-under 264.
He was six shots clear Saturday afternoon when he hit his tee shot in the water for a double bogey on the par-5 18th hole. Poulter had made birdie on the 18th, so the lead was cut to three shots going into the final round. Poulter started birdie-birdie. McDowell did one better, opening with three straight birdies. Johnson three-putted the first hole for bogey, and then failed to make birdie on the par-5 second hole even though he had a 6-iron for his second shot.
Just like that, there was a three-way tie for the lead.
“The first five holes were not fun,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t having too much fun at the start, especially when Graeme and Ian were birdieing every hole, it seemed like. But I knew I just needed to keep playing my game.”
Poulter, still tied for the lead, reached the green in two with a fairway metal. Johnson missed the fairway and had to lay up, while McDowell was stuck in the thick collar on the top side of a bunker, and he did well to hit a chunk-and-run onto the green about 40 feet away. Poulter lagged to tap-in range for birdie. McDowell’s long birdie putt banged into the back of the cup and disappeared. Johnson calmly made his 20-foot birdie.
“That was a big putt there,” Johnson said.
Poulter fell out of the lead with a bogey from the bunker on the 15th, and he never caught up. He at least stayed within two shots with a birdie on the 16th, but it was demoralizing to see Johnson follow his eagle with a 5-iron into 8 feet for birdie on the 17th that wrapped it up.
“A little disappointed not to put my hands back on the trophy,” said Poulter, who won the HSBC Champions last year at Mission Hills. “But 15 birdies and an eagle at the weekend is some pretty good golf. Dustin finished the job. It was good golf and it was good fun to play in that group.”
Garcia closed with a 63 to finish fourth, followed by Rose (68). McIlroy and Graham DeLaet each shot 69 to tie for sixth.
It was the second consecutive PGA Tour season that Johnson won the first tournament he played — even though it was in the same year. His last win was the Tournament of Championship at Kapalua in January. This is the first time the tour has gone to a wraparound season, which began a month ago.
Johnson now has won in each of his first seven seasons on the PGA Tour, the most by any player since Woods in his first 14 seasons through 2009. The next step is to win a major, and he already has had plenty of chances in those.
“You know what?” Johnson said. “If I play like I did this week, I’m going to win one, for sure.”