AUSTIN, Texas — Dustin Johnson is one victory away from something not even Tiger Woods has accomplished: a sweep of the four World Golf Championships.
All that remains is the Dell Technologies Match Play, and Johnson has to be considered a strong favourite. He is the No. 1 seed for the first time. He is coming off consecutive victories at Riviera and the Mexico Championship. His form has never been better.
And he won’t have to worry about Mark Wilson.
Wilson isn’t part of the 64-man field at Austin Country Club, but he illustrates why this might be the toughest World Golf Championship to win.
Anything can happen. Anything usually does.
On a Dove Mountain course in the high desert of Arizona that favoured big hitters, Wilson eliminated Johnson in back-to-back years. Wilson showed that good putting makes up for a lack of distance off the tee in any format, particularly match play. And Johnson showed that power still requires a little bit of accuracy.
“I played in the desert a lot there,” he said with a smile.
Even so, there is reason to believe Johnson might actually make it to Sunday for the first time in his ninth try.
While the seeds of the Match Play champions resembled lotto numbers in the early going of this tournament, that hasn’t been the case recently. Over the last 10 years, the worst seed to win was No. 21 (Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan).
And with the format changing to round-robin group play the last two years, the winners were Rory McIlroy at No. 1 in the world, and Jason Day, who went to No. 1 in the world.
“It gives you a chance,” McIlroy said of the format.
The Match Play begins Wednesday with three rounds of group play, preceded by endless speculation about who has the best chance to advance out of the 16 groups of four players, when no one ever knows what to expect, including the players.
The brackets make it look like the NCAA Tournament. The game makes it look more like roulette.
Jose Luis Campra, the caddie for Emiliano Grillo, grew up with his beloved Argentina in the World Cup, so it was not surprising to hear him inquire about the “grupo de la muerta,” known as the “death group.”
Johnson has only major champions in his group — Jimmy Walker (PGA Championship), Martin Kaymer (PGA, U.S. Open), Webb Simpson (U.S. Open). It sounds daunting, except that Kaymer is 0-for-73 since winning the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, and Simpson is winless in his last 80 starts dating to 2013.
“I’m playing very well right now. I think that’s my advantage,” Johnson said. “But playing match play doesn’t matter if you’re No. 1 or whatever number you are because it’s only 18 holes. And anything can happen.”
If nothing else, this World Golf Championship that uses the world ranking to determine the field and seeds illustrates how tough it’s been to stay at the top.
Tiger Woods was the last player to be the No. 1 seed in successive years — 2008 when he won, 2009 when he lost in the second round to Tim Clark in his return from knee surgery. Since then, there have been seven No. 1 seeds over the last eight years. McIlroy was a top seed twice and the only No. 1 seed to win.
Jordan Spieth was ousted in the fourth round last year on a chilly Saturday morning with thousands of fans bundled in burnt orange, the colours of the Texas Longhorns that he helped lead to an NCAA title in 2012.
The No. 1 seed lost in the first round when it was single elimination three times in four years. The exception was Lee Westwood in 2011. He lost in the second round.
Day is the defending champion after nearly withdrawing following his opening round because of a back injury. He is so optimistic this year that he chose not to play a practice round to conserve energy in case he goes the distance.
“You have to beat seven guys,” he said. “You come here and beat seven guys, you win the tournament. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
He is trying to join Woods (2003-04) as the only back-to-back winners of this most unpredictable event.
Johnson would love nothing more than to win it once. His other WGC titles were the HSBC Champions (2013) and the Bridgestone Invitational last year. He won the other WGC twice — in Mexico earlier this month and at Doral in 2015. His four WGCs are second only to Woods, by a mile. Woods won 18 of them, missing only the HSBC in Shanghai. But that wasn’t a WGC until 2009, and Woods only played it twice.