The Hand of DJ Too Good In Mexico City

5 March 2017
PGA Tour / European Tour

Dustin Johnson won the WGC Mexico Championship at Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City by just one shot over England’s Tommy Fleetwood, with Ross Fisher and Jon Rahm finishing a shot further back in a tie for fourth. In a city that has not hosted an elite sporting event of such global magnitude since the 1986 World Cup, when the Hand of God was a decisive factor, it was the gifted and legitimate hands of world number one DJ that were the difference, leaving neither a sense of regret concerning unfortunate refereeing oversights nor any need for divine intervention. Despite contenders Mickelson, McIlroy, Thomas, Fisher and Pieters all jostling for position to become the main threats to DJ on Sunday, it turned out that the young Spaniard Jon Rahm was the main challenger on the back nine, even edging into a one stroke lead after a birdie on the 15th hole took him to -5 for the day and -14 overall, however a prompt Johnson response on the 15th to get to -14 and a bogey-bogey run on the 16th and 17th by Rahm ended the Spaniard’s challenge, yet simultaneously, Tommy Fleetwood emerged from the pack at the death as his back nine 32 culminated in a 39-foot birdie putt drained on the 18th green to pile some last minute pressure on DJ, who was grappling along behind to par the last three holes. Par the last three holes he did, playing to a conservative yardage on the dangerous par three 17th and recovering brilliantly from a pulled tee shot on the par four 18th, in fact the 120-yard fairway bunker shot from an awkward stance on the 18th was rightly highlighted as the decisive tournament winning shot, reminiscent of Steve Stricker at Deere Run in 2011.

The main pretenders to DJ’s world number one throne and other in-form candidates, namely Rory, Jordan, Rickie, the Justins, Sergio, Hideki and Adam, all ultimately failed to keep pace with DJ this week. Justin Thomas came closest, but his back nine club-throwing show put him out of touch of the lead and he could not recover in time. The leaderboard was loaded over the weekend, however in the very closing stages it was Rahm, Fisher, Pieters and Fleetwood who came to the fore. In truth it is rare in golf that even three or four of the top ten players in the OWGR end up challenging for a tournament victory with three holes remaining, but it is nonetheless disappointing that McIlrory and JT, for example, could not hang in there until the end. The absence of Day and Stenson was also a non-recurring anomaly you would hope. Much like Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood took this big stage as a chance to back up recent winning performances and mix it on a higher level and both gave excellent accounts of themselves. For Fisher, Hatton and Pieters, their top-ten performances also back up recent form and will give them confidence for the months ahead.

The irony of the WGC Championship event having been relocated from Trump Doral to Mexico and staged just weeks after the new US President’s inauguration was highlighted in the prelude to the event, but such was the resounding success of the tournament that all non-golf narratives were long forgotten as early as Thursday morning. The course withstood the test of the best players in the world seeking to rip it to shreds, with its narrow lines, undulations and taxing greens with a variety of opportunity and challenge presented by pin placements. Given the altitude, of which we were constantly reminded in coverage to the point of distraction, the course in effect played much shorter than 7,000 yards, but it left many of the big hitters scratching their heads. True, the winner was a bomber, but you don’t get to world number one unless you can do everything very well and Dustin’s short game and putting (apart from day one) were good enough. The event was hugely enjoyable, with large crowds delighted to have the top players in the world on their doorstep and cameos such as football announcers commentating on hole-outs, not least for Justin Thomas’s ace, enhancing the spectacle. If crowds are chanting at a non-Ryder Cup event, then that is a clear sign of success and it would seem to go deeper than a mass gathering of drunken louts packed into a bowl in the desert at Phoenix. Even the beeps from the traffic jams heard alongside the 1st green were entertaining.

Most commentators when asked about Mickelson this week would probably say the same thing – good old Phil, spraying the ball all over the course but still able to make unlikely pars and birdies, negotiating gaps that nobody else could even imagine and holing out from all over the place to finish T7. Yes, it is the magic of Phil, but there was a side to him on show that I previously would have overlooked but this week was just plain annoying. That three hole stretch on Saturday, when twenty minutes or more in total were spent looking for balls, consulting with officials and almost inventing new rules, was infuriating to watch. Professionals should always use the rules to their advantage when it is reasonable, but rules officials bowing to the word of Phil and his refusal to accept penalty, distracting playing partners to the detriment of their own rounds in the process, was not enjoyable viewing, even if he was technically breaking no rules and showing his experience. Other incidents compounded the assessment. The playing of a shot to greenside with the group ahead still on the green and the “so-what-I-am-Phil” attitude. On the 18th green on Sunday, as the local crowd who were quite obviously vehemently behind the efforts of Jon Rahm and wished to give him a prolonged ovation after he holed out, caddie Bones holding an obnoxious hand in the air to say “quiet please Phil is is here”. Too bad Bones and too bad Phil, wait your turn and let Mexico support its man for another few seconds. I also had a slight concern with the caddie situation on Friday. As was pointed out continuously in coverage, Phil’s brother Tim Mickelson is Jon Rahm’s manager. When Bones had to retire early on Friday, Tim stepped in as replacement caddie to Phil. In most other sports there are rules preventing such conflict of competitive interest. How could Tim Mickelson conceivably influence the contest such that it would benefit Jon Rahm you might be asking? Theoretically it is a a far-fetched likelihood, but it is not inconceivable even in accidental terms. On Sunday Rahm and Mickelson were grouped together. Would it have been okay then? Maybe so. This entire passage could sound like I am questioning the honour of the Mickelsons. I am not at all, but what I am questioning is small print within the code of competition.

Scrambler Pick – The Valspar Championship: This section is in danger of becoming more and more pointless as the weeks roll by and at this stage I would not expect anyone to back my tips for an each way return. Louis Oosthuizen, in hindsight probably weary from a crazy schedule of air miles in recent weeks, never got going and returned a sluggish T48 in a field of 76 players. I am not looking to call the winner necessarily, but I am looking for some value from a little bit deeper in the field every week. This week the Tour returns to Florida and the horribly named “Snake Pit” of Innisbrook’s Copperhead course. I am putting my house on Ollie Schneiderjans at 80/1. I will not bother explaining why, other than pointing to three top-tens so far this season, including at Torrey Pines and Riviera. Go Ollie!

No Land of Confusion for Dustin

19 February 2017
PGA Tour

Superman where are you now / When everything’s gone wrong somehow

The men of steel, the men of power / Are losing control by the hour

Dustin Johnson did not have these words from Land Of Confusion by Genesis in his head during the first three rounds of the Genesis Open at Riviera, shooting 66-66-64 to set up an imperious lead, but the mundane level par final round of 71 can only be explained by a man tormented by the voice of Phil Collins in his head over every backswing and missed putt. The tournament record of -20 was under threat when Johnson reached that score after six holes of the final round, but 1980’s pop music took over and eventually dragged Dustin back to -17, still five shots ahead of Thomas Pieters and Scott Brown. Or, the more likely explanation for the +3 return for the closing ten holes is simply that Dustin was so far ahead of the nearest challengers (nine shots at one point) that the procession inevitably became absent of the spark that had marked the first three rounds, fatigue also playing its part noting the 36-hole Sunday finish necessary due to the weather delays.

DJ led the field for the week in driving distance, strokes gained off the tee and GIR, a formidable combination and ominous for the year ahead. The dominant victory, perhaps overdue given his excellent prior record of five top-five finishes at the iconic Pacific Palisades course just off Sunset Boulevard, is more impressive given the career milestones that come with it. DJ is now only the fourth player to win at least once in every year of his first ten seasons on the ‘modern’ Tour, joining the most elite company possible in this bracket: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Not to mention the win has also given DJ the number 1 slot in the world rankings for the first time.

Swinging like Superman, putting just as brilliantly, he is a man of steel and power, but he is also a man of composure, calm and control. The recent Golf.com article on DJ revealed one particular story that I found fascinating. The morning after the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, DJ got up early for a round of golf with family friends as if nothing had happened on the final green the previous evening. Come to think of it, as he walked off the 18th green that day carrying his five month old son Tatum, he had probably gotten over the disappointment by the time he reached the scorer’s tent. Such is DJ’s attitude to life since his late 2014 sabbatical, it seems he has found the ultimate formula on and off the course and this means he could be a difficult man to shake off the top of the world rankings.

So to the weekly “how many majors will he win” discourse. The problem with DJ, Spieth, McIlroy, Day, Garcia, Stenson, Matsuyama, Rose, Thomas, Mickelson, etc etc, being top players in good form and with major winning credentials is that there are only four majors per year and they cannot all win them all. We have already heard mentioned several times this season that certain players “should” win majors. But there are only four of them a year and look at the above list of players. Look at some of the others not in that list (Fowler, Scott, Rahm, Pieters, Reed, etc etc). DJ has finished T6 and T4 in his last two Masters, but prior to that he has struggled to feature at the business end of things around Augusta. I suspect he will be thereabouts this time around, but I do not see him separating himself from the field. Augusta is just too tricky and in any case Jordan could have it won by Friday evening. Erin Hills however looks very much like a DJ course – Whistling Straits meets Chambers Bay perhaps – so I expect him to put in a strong defence of his title in Wisconsin. To The Open, whilst he has shown that he can golf his ball around links tracks before, I think that local knowledge could prove vital on this occasion. It will also be interesting to see if DJ plays in the European Tour links events in the weeks before The Open. Either way this one is not straight forward to assess. Finally the PGA, DJ has chosen to skip the regular Tour stop at Quail Hollow in the last few years, so without a form guide it is difficult to assume he will run riot at a track that so many of the top players will know inside out in tournament conditions. That’s not to say the major week set-up won’t be different and of course he has game and form that can deal with any circumstance right now, but this is hard to sustain and golf course familiarity can be decisive when it comes to the big weeks. In summary, I like him very much for the defence of his US Open, maybe a sneaky top-five at Augusta, but beyond that I am looking elsewhere.

Scrambler Pick – Honda Classic at PGA National: Last week I implored you to put your house on Charles Howell III at 66/1 for an each way windfall. Charlie put in a valiant effort, finishing T15 at -8, just three strokes back of the each way payout, but close is not close enough when you need a professional golfer to pay for your weekend beers. Stick with me though, there is a big one coming. We are getting close. T36 to T15 to a bonanza week next week. Your ticket to the Honda bonanza is right here. The Florida swing begins at Palm Beach Gardens and the ‘Bear Trap’, a course that can be brutal and punishing. Winning scores at PGA National have been single figure under par numbers in all but two of the last ten years. In fact only four players in total have managed to record -10 or better for the week in the last decade and three of them occurred in 2012. In 2015 and 2008 the winner came home in -6 for the week and in 2007 it was one lower at -5. My man for the week is Luke Donald at 55/1. T23 and T17 in the last couple of events and a course that suits his strategic nous. His rally back into the world’s top fifty is about to gather a new increased pace. Go with Luke. He also won this event in 2006 albeit that was at Mirasol the year before the tournament moved location. I am also going to take advantage of Soren Kjeldson at 200/1. He has struggled to perform on the PGA Tour the last few weeks, but he is too good to keep down and I think a tough test such as this will bring him back to the mix.