It’s rare for the PGA Tour’s annual match play event to reward fans with two marquee players in the title match, but fans got their wish Sunday as World No. 1 Dustin Johnson defeated a red-hot Jon Rahm in the finals of WGC-Dell Match Play to win his third consecutive start on the PGA TOUR.
As the week wore on at Austin Country Club and 64 players were whittled down to 16 for the knockout rounds, it became apparent that the dream final would be Johnson and Rahm. The two bombers had been torching their competition all week en route to posting perfect records. Both players faced more difficult semifinal matches than expected on Sunday morning, but ultimately survived, with Johnson knocking out relative unknown Hideto Tanihara of Japan, 1 up, and Rahm downing steady eddie Bill Haas, 3 and 2 with a late charge.
Johnson got off to a hot start in the finals – as he had all week – and was helped by shaky short putting from Rahm, which allowed DJ to open up a commanding 5-up lead through eight holes. Rahm was able to stave off a blowout with wins on the ninth and 10th but a Johnson birdie on the par-5 12th opened up a 4-up lead with just six holes remaining. Rahm fought back with birdies on the 13th, the 15th and (somewhat miraculously) the 16th to cut Johnson’s lead to 1 up with two holes remaining. After halving the par-3 17th with pars, Rahm headed to the 18th needing a win to extend the match. Choosing to go for the drivable green, Rahm unleashed a tee shot that he hit too well, watching it run through the green. Meanwhile, DJ chose to lay up with an iron, setting up a poorly-struck wedge shot that missed the green short and leaving the door open for Rahm to extend the match with an up and down. Unfortunately, Rahm’s attempt came up short – it sounded as if he was distracted by the slamming of a bathroom door in the background. Rahm’s chip left him with a difficult birdie attempt, while Johnson got up and down to win his second WGC event of the season.
Monday morning takeaways
The putter came to the party
How dominant was DJ? He never trailed in a match and didn’t play the 17th or 18th hole in a match until Sunday. Johnson brought his usual stout tee-to-green game to Austin CC but where he really shined was on the greens, regularly dropping long putts and finishing fifth in strokes gained: putting for the week. When Johnson’s putter is on, his top gear is tough to match. With three straight victories he has to be considered the man to beat at Augusta.
If you haven’t bought a property on Rahm Island, this is your last chance. Like Johnson, the 22-year-old was utterly dominant in Austin. Had it not been for the slammed bathroom door, we could be talking about Rahm’s second win in just his 16th start as a professional. Rahm’s skill set features elite driving and putting, a combination that works at just about every type of golf course. He is one of the best 10 players in the world right now and should be on everyone’s short list of Masters favorites.
What makes a great match play course
I had the chance to cover the event at Austin CC and was thoroughly impressed by how great the mere 6,641 yard course was as a match play course. Its firm and fast conditions, great hole variety, vicious green complexes and subtle challenges yielded a rarely-seen challenge for the world’s best and an ideal match play setting. I took a deep dive into why it’s such a great match play course here.
Despite falling in both his semifinal match against DJ and his third-place match with Bill Haas, little known Hideto Tanihara was one of the stories of the week. Tanihara started the week off with a bang, sending shockwaves through the crowds with his upset over hometown favorite Jordan Spieth. He continued to impress through his near-upset of Dustin Johnson. Tanihara is a prime example of how small the margin can be between golf’s best players and its relative unknowns.
The thrilling final matchup of DJ and Rahm shouldn’t make up for the fact that this year’s early-round withdrawals of Jason Day and Gary Woodland exposed a problem with the current system. The withdrawals put the “pod system” into disarray with players sitting out sessions and creating more meaningless matches on Friday. In total, 22 players had been mathematically eliminated before their Friday match. When you couple that with the confusion the pod system creates for viewers it’s clear that reform is necessary. I took a stab at what I would propose the PGA Tour should do moving forward.
The other guys
Using birdies on four of his final six holes (including the 18th), D.A. Points captured his third career PGA Tour title, shooting 20-under par at the Puerto Rico Open. Points’ clutch close gave him a two-shot victory over a trio of Retief Goosen, Bryson DeChambeau and Bill Lunde.
The Puerto Rico Open offers a great opportunity for the lesser-known veterans and rookies to get a valuable start and have a shot at earning a win without the Tour’s biggest stars in the field. The past two years have seen more lows than highs for Points, who had to regain his card via last year’s Web.com Tour Finals and entered the week struggling to get regular starts because of his low status on the Tour. Points made the most of the opportunity and picked up a valuable winner’s check, a 2-year exemption on the PGA Tour and a regular playing calendar.
A step in the right direction
The former can’t-miss phenom Casey Wittenberg took a big step in earning his way back to the PGA Tour by winning this week’s Chitimacha Louisiana Open on the Web.com Tour. Wittenberg used stellar rounds of 65-64-65 to open up a six-shot lead heading into Sunday’s final round, allowing him to cruise to a three-shot win over Xinjun Zhang after a final-round 69. Wittenberg turned pro in the summer 2004 after an illustrious amateur career and a T13 performance at the Masters and was dubbed as “Golf’s Next Superstar.” Since then Wittenberg’s career has been filled with a few flashes of greatness outweighed by struggles. He is one of golf’s best examples of how hard it is to “make it.” The win moves Wittenberg into fifth on the Web.com Tour money list and put him in great position to earn back a spot on the PGA Tour.
Mirim Lee captures the Kia Classic title.
Something you will likely never see again, Sergio Garcia tops a tee shot.
Tanihara’s brilliant week included a Sunday hole-in-one