AUSTIN – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – The championship match of the World Golf Championship Match Play on Sunday between two of the game’s true power players, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and young bull Jon Rahm of Spain, was decided by consistency rather than brute strength with, perhaps, a little bit of experience thrown in for good measure.
The final tally will show that Johnson, the reigning U.S. Open champion, outlasted the 22-year-old Rahm, 1-up, at windswept Austin Country Club. But things could have been different except for about a foot’s worth of putts over the match’s 16 holes.
That’s the sum measure of the distance by which Rahm, seeded 21st in this event, missed putts over the first eight holes.
Johnson dominated this golf course and his competition during his seven rounds, never trailing in any match and working his way through three rounds of group play and two more matches in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals without even breaking a sweat.
Johnson was pushed to the final hole in Sunday’s semifinal with Japan’s Hideto Tanihara, the first time all week he had even been forced to play past the 15th hole. At the end, that experience might have helped him.
Rahm, in his first year on tour and already a winner at the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year in San Diego, knocked drives past his famously long opponent and eventually pulling back to within one hole after birdieing the 13th, 15th and 16th holes, the latter on a 32-foot putt that sought out the hole like a laser.
Both players parred the short par-3 17th (it was the first time all week Rahm played the hole) and went to the final hole with Johnson still 1-up.
Rahm’s tee shot on the drivable par-4 18th rolled over the green and settled on a drainage grate while Johnson played it safe, opting for an iron off the tee and an approach just short of the putting surface. When Rahm’s chip came up short of the steep hill on the green, he faced a near impossible birdie putt and missed, allowing Johnson to win the match by halving the hole with a par.
“I definitely didn’t play my best today in the first match or the second,” Johnson said. “So, to win both those matches not having my best stuff is definitely a positive. And I’m definitely proud of the way I hung in there and played tough and just tried to never give away holes, which I felt like I did a pretty good job of.”
Johnson has now won the past three tournaments in which he has played — he previously captured the Genesis Open and the WGC-Mexico Championship — and has stamped himself as the unquestioned player to beat for the Masters Tournament, which begins a week down the road, April 6.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence now — confidence in my game and confidence in myself,” Johnson said. “And I just need to keep working on it, keep trying to get better and keep working hard.”
Johnson took advantage of Rahm’s nerves and suddenly balky putter to accept a 5-up lead through the first eight holes of the championship match. During that stretch, Johnson had back-to-back birdies on the par-4 fifth and the par-5 sixth and Rahm stumbled to bogeys on par-4 third, the par-3 fourth and par-4 eighth and missed a short birdie putt on the par-4 fifth that would have halved the hole.
“The front nine was a very steep and deep low, I must say,” Rahm explained. “I was trying to do the best I could, but just things weren’t happening, unfortunately for me. Even when I was 4 down with six to go, I wasn’t that low. I was trying to stay positive.
The momentum changed a little on the downhill par-4 ninth, on which Rahm blasted a 375-yard drive and won when Johnson bogeyed. The Spaniard picked up another hole on the par-4 10th, on which Johnson three-putted for another bogey. Suddenly Rahm was back to a manageable 3-down.
“(Rahm) didn’t really any bad shots, just missed a couple of putts, and then I made some birdies,” Johnson said. “And so, yeah, got up pretty quick early. But I kind of gave him a couple on 9 and 10. But this golf course I felt like it was playing tough.”
Things swung back in Johnson’s favor on the course’s signature hole, the downhill, par-5 12th. Both players had drives in excess of 424 yards (Rahm belted his 438 yards) and had second shots into the isthmus green.
Johnson’s approach found the middle of the putting surface, 23 feet away from eagle, from where he birdied; Rahm’s second shot landed in the pot bunker right of the green, after he blasted out of the sand to short of the hole, he missed another putt that would have halved the hole.
Rahm again fought back, driving the all-carry-over-water par-4 13th and two putting to again pull to 3-down. Then came birdies on the par-4 15th and the par-5 16th, the second of which came after Rahm blasted his tee shot into the trees to the right of the fairway.
“I’m very proud of what I did, very proud for what I stood for on the course,” Rahm said. “Very proud of fighting hard and being able to make birdies where I needed them and up-and-downs, a couple of them. So honestly, as sad as I might emotionally feel, I’m extremely happy with what I did. Trying to keep the curve of emotion going up right now.”
In the third-place match 2011 FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas beat Tanihara, 2 and 1, winning three of the pair’s final five holes when the 54th-seeded Tanihara bogeyed them. Haas, seeded 42nd, shot just 1-under through the match’s 17 holes and won even though Tanihara poured in a hole-in-one on the par-3 seventh and was conceded a 12-foot eagle putt on the par-5 12th after Haas missed a birdie opportunity.
Earlier in the day in one semifinal, Johnson outlasted Tanihara, 1 up, after a brilliant birdie on the 17th hole gave him the cushion he needed. He then fashioned a nerveless, up-and-down par from the thick grass just short of the green on the par-4 18th to close out the match.
In the other semifinal, Rahm caught fire when he needed to the most, winning three of the last four holes in dispatching Haas, 3 and 2. Rahm and Haas were tied through the par-5 12th, which both players birdied, before Rahm finished off Haas with birdies on holes 13, 15 and 16