That he became the 20th player to reach No. 1 since the Official World Golf Ranking began in 1986 was only fitting. It was at Riviera a year earlier that Johnson made a decision that turned him into the best player in the world. It was raining when he finished his pro-am at Riviera in 2016, and Johnson got up from lunch and told his coaches to bring Trackman to the range. He spent the next hour trying to dial in the distance on his wedges. At every tournament after that, he set up the sonar measuring device specifically for his wedges. The power is what makes Johnson stand out. The putting comes and goes, as it does for just about every player. Johnson felt he wasn’t taking as much advantage of his length without giving himself shorter birdie chances with a wedge in his hand. That’s what made the difference last year. And when he won the following year at Riviera, it’s what made his peers take a deep breath.
Zach Johnson was talking with part of his team in the locker room at Austin Country Club following a 5-and-4 loss to Dustin Johnson in the fourth round of the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play. That he lost in 14 holes was not a shock given the format and the disparity in length off the tee. What the two-time major champion saw in the No. 1 player in the world went beyond that. He started to mention “Tiger” in his reference, and held back only because it’s easy to take that out of context. There is no other Tiger, is there? Johnson was being spoken of in those tones. “There’s just not a flaw, and confidence adds to that. He hits a lot of wedges, and when he’s got control of that, he’s a tough man to beat,” Zach Johnson said. “He’s as good as anyone has ever played in the last month.”
Johnson went on to win the Match Play over Jon Rahm in the championship match. It was his third straight victory starting with Riviera. In between was another WGC title, the Mexico Championship, in which he started one shot behind Justin Thomas, surged into the lead, held off a spirited charge by Rahm and then Tommy Fleetwood, and won with — what else? — a wedge. Johnson was in a bunker left of the 18th fairway at Chapultepec Golf Club, clinging to a one-shot lead. His feet were on the edge of the bunker. He had a 54-degree wedge and trees dangling in the way. And he knocked it to 20 feet to set up the victory.
Winning his third straight event at the Match Play made him the first player to capture all of the World Golf Championships. He won the HSBC Champions in Shanghai in 2013, the Bridgestone Invitational in 2016. He had won the predecessor to the Mexico Championship (Cadillac Championship at Doral), and now had the Match Play. More than a sweep of trophies, and a great photo opportunity, it made him the most prohibitive favorite at the Masters since the days of Woods. There’s that name again. “You look at the leaderboard, there’s a few names you don’t want to see. Mine would be one of them,” Johnson said.
Preparations were going beautifully until the rain arrived Wednesday. Johnson was at his rental home in Augusta when he ran down the wooden stairs — in his socks — to move the car because his son was on his way home from daycare. What happened next remains a vivid memory. Johnson immediately thought his back was broken. He yelled for Paulina and told her to get his brother, Austin, to help him to the couch. “I just remember how red his face looked,” Austin said later. Johnson knew his Masters was over before it started, even though he dressed and went to the course the next day. He was on the range trying to make full swings. On the putting green, he was still practicing full swings. Then, abruptly, he turned and walked to the clubhouse to withdraw.
Johnson didn’t return until the Wells Fargo Championship, rusty and a little sore. It took a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole by Brian Harman to beat him. Even so, he wasn’t the same. Even if his back felt fine and he could hit all the shots, he had lost the momentum he had from the spring and those three straight victories. He missed the cut in his title defense at the U.S. Open. He never featured at The Open Championship or the PGA Championship. His fourth and final victory of the year came at the start of the FedExCup Playoffs, though he didn’t build off that. Still, it was a reminder of what makes him great — power and wedge play. Tied for the lead with Spieth and having to lay up short of the 18th green, Johnson hit a wedge to 18 feet and converted the par putt to force a playoff. Then, he took an aggressive line and smashed a drive that went 341 yards and left him a flip wedge to the green that he hit to three feet for birdie.
His final act was another element to Johnson that makes him so good. He lost a six-shot lead in the final round of the HSBC Champions, which tied a PGA Tour record for largest deficit lost in the final round. He’s not even sure how it happened. Johnson was still leading by three shots at the turn and didn’t miss a fairway. Someone commented as he left Shanghai that evening, “This could haunt him for a long time.” That someone doesn’t know Johnson. He saw Butch Harmon on his way home from Asia and said only, “Hey, you can’t play great every day.” And that was that.
Johnson’s year was defined by a fall down the stairs. Rory McIlroy and Jason Day suffered a fall down the World Ranking, an amazing part to 2017 that won’t get as much attention as it should. For a player who suffers nagging injuries, to lose confidence, to lose interest after being at the top, is not unusual. But two of them? The year began with Day at No. 1 in the world by a healthy margin over McIlroy. By the end of the year, McIlroy had him beat — he was at No. 11, while Day was at No. 13. It was the first time in the history of the World Ranking that Nos. 1 and 2 were both out of the top 10 at the end of the year.
McIlroy started with higher hopes, of course. He felt a tweak in his back after the second round of the BMW South African Open, and used some tape and pills to get through the week. He lost in a playoff to Graeme Storm, and then flew to Dubai for tests. He discovered a hairline fracture of the rib, which knocked him out of two European Tour events in the Middle East, along with the Genesis Open and the Honda Classic. He returned for the WGC – Mexico Championship, opened with rounds of 68-65 and had the 36-hole lead. Easy game. He fell back into a tie for seventh, though that was hardly cause for concern. He tied for fourth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, taking a brief lead late in the round still having a chance to force a playoff until missing a 30-foot putt on the 18th. Going to the Masters with a chance to complete the career Grand Slam, he fell six shots behind going into the last day and couldn’t make up ground and tied for seventh.