Dustin Johnson’s greatest quality as a golfer is that he always remains the same. That is true in the micro sense; he’s rarely rattled and almost always unflappable. But in this case, it’s true in the macro sense as the No. 1 player in the world won the 2021 Saudi International on Sunday to pick up his first win since dominating the Masters in November.
It’s D.J.’s third win in his last eight (!) starts, his fourth in his last 13, his second at the Saudi International in the last three years and his 16th anywhere worldwide since the start of 2016, the beginning of his now-six-year run as the best player on the planet. A run that doesn’t look like it’s going to subside anytime soon.
Johnson came into the finale with a two-stroke lead on Victor Perez, and closed him out with a 2-under 68. Perez actually finished T4 at 12 under as Tony Finau and Justin Rose were the closest to D.J.’s 15-under total at 13 under themselves.
The way D.J. did it this week was a bit of a throwback for him. He leaned more heavily on his driver and his tee to green play than normal. Johnson came into Sunday’s final round right at field average with his putter, and he could not buy one all day on the greens in King Abdullah Economic City. He said after the round that his problem was with reads. When he read it going left, it went right. When he read it going right, it went left.
After an early birdie, he didn’t get another one until the par-4 13th after a phenomenal approach shot curled around the back of the hole, and he (finally) dropped it for a 3. However, he then made a bogey on a terrible putt on the 16th hole, and a tournament that should not have been in the balance was suddenly in the balance.
An absolute rocket launcher off the 17th tee barely cleared the small gulley in front of the green on that hole, though, and D.J. got up and down for birdie from there to put the tournament away and secure his third-straight top-two finish at this tournament.
“I felt like I struck it very well,” he said. “I drove it really good. So I gave myself a ton of chances. But yeah, just obviously I’m very pleased with the win and very excited but I’m going to have to go home and work on the putting a bit I think.”
The 25th win of his career worldwide is not the crown jewel in D.J.’s career, and the appearance fee money this week almost certainly surpassed his check for first place, but it’s still an important victory for a few reasons. The first is that it was a strong field he held off on the weekend. And the second, as he noted in his post-round interview, is that backing up that Masters win in November with another one quickly in 2021 is vital.
D.J. has been — by far — the best player on the planet since professional golf resumed amid the pandemic last June. His 2.7 strokes gained per round — the best measure of the best players — surpasses Xander Schauffele (2.4), Justin Thomas (2.3), Jon Rahm (2.3) and Bryson DeChambeau (2.1). That culminated at Augusta National three months ago. However, these things come and go. Often we see somebody scale the mountain only to succumb to the weight of his or her own success. Unable to ride the wave of elite play for long periods of time, we have seen players fall hard and take months or years to recover.
So that brings us back to the beginning with D.J. He is the same, always. It’s his superpower. At the beginning of the week, he explained how he thinks about this stuff when he’s actually on the course, and it gives a glimpse into why he hasn’t been outside the top 10 in the world since the start of 2015.
“Right now, I’m the best player in the world, I hit some of the worst shots you’ve ever seen,” he said. “But I go find it and hit it again. Obviously not all of them are bad but I do hit bad shots. But it’s managing those shots and not letting it bother you and going and hitting the next one good.”
D.J.’s talent is nearly peerless, but so is the way he approaches the game. It’s part of the reason he’s maintained so much consistent success at the very top of the professional game, and part of the reason why 2021 is unlikely to be different than any of the five years before it.