Dustin Johnson: Wakes Up on 8 at HSBC and Wins Going Away

The final round of the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China, ended up being a riveting affair with no clue who was going to win until the final holes.

It began with Johnson’s bogey on 1, Graeme McDowell making the case that the game was going to be easy with birdies on 1, 2, and 3 and Ian Poulter making matching birdies on 1 and 2.

The day started this way:

  • Dustin Johnson – 18-under
  • Ian Poulter – 15-under
  • Graeme McDowell – 14-under

And after just three holes, it was, “The Three Musketeers,” all tied at 17-under.

It must have come as a shock to Johnson because his 5-shot, 36-hole lead had been shaved to 3 after 54. Not too alarming you wouldn’t think because he had been driving it prodigious distances in the dead middle of the fairway and scoring like it was all supposed to be happening. 

But all of that was before McDowell awoke from his admittedly intimidating, first two rounds with Johnson and shot a sizzling 10-under 62 to climb right back in it. Who was that guy?

Later in the media center, Johnson was able to distinguish the difference between fun and pressure:

Well, that was fun.  The first five holes were not fun.  Especially when I missed a short putt on 1, and then into the [not] birdieing 2 with a 6‑iron in, that was pretty bad, just a poor shot.

So I wasn’t having too much fun at the start, especially when Graeme and Ian, they were birdieing every hole it seemed like starting out.

The good ones, that is to say the experienced ones, know there is one simple answer to the doldrums if only you can remember what it is under the gun:

But I knew I just needed to keep playing my game, keep getting it in the fairway — and birdieing 8 and 9 were huge for me to get back, at least to shoot 1‑under on the front, because it felt like — at one point it wasn’t as easy as it was yesterday but it was still doable with the greens being soft and the greens were rolling so good.

And ultimately, this slowly unfolding wisdom got the job done. They all got to the 14th with Johnson and Poulter tied at 20 and McDowell one back at 19.

McDowell makes a bomb from another time zone for birdie and Poulter makes his for birdie…and Johnson makes his for birdie:

But honestly, turning on the back side, probably the biggest putt I made was that one on 14 which Ian was already in there for birdie, and Graeme had just holed a 40‑footer.  So that was a big putt there.

That was the high-water mark for McDowell (20); he wasn’t able to squeeze another birdie out of the last four holes. That left Johnson and Poulter at 21.

Poulter blinked first with a bogey on 15, and even though he bounced back with a birdie on 16, Johnson slammed the door with a pitch-in eagle-2 on the par-4 16th. And then he locked the door with a final birdie on 17.

And then obviously the pitch‑in on 16 and the birdie on 17 was huge.

He went though what happened on those two holes. The pitch shot on 16 was nothing short of phenomenal, rolling into the dead center of the cup without even hitting the flagstick.

Well, I think at that point, I was one ahead on 16.  So, you know, I knew 16 and 18 were really birdie holes, and then 17 is a tough par 3.

But I knew on 16, I just needed to hit a good tee shot, which I hit it perfect.  And the pitch shot, I was talking to my brother [his stand-in caddie] right before I hit it.  I said, “I think I’m going to make this one.”  I hit the pitch just perfect and it went right in the middle.

That was huge, and especially to have a two‑shot lead going into 17; and I hit a great shot to 17 about seven or eight feet and holed that putt.

And then to have a three‑shot lead going into 18, that’s right where I want to be.  I think someone asked me earlier in the week, you know, if you’ve got a three‑shot lead, what are you doing on [the par-5] 18.

I said I’m going to hit 3‑iron off the tee, and I did, which is perfect.  I couldn’t get there unless I hit a perfect drive, and after hitting it in the water yesterday, I wasn’t hitting driver.

But, you know, three really good shots on 18.

Even though he missed his birdie putt on 18, his putting was so reliable most of the day, it drew a specific question from foreign media about what sort of strategies he employed and about how he practiced:

Well, obviously this week, I putted very well.  But just from practice — all I practice really is short putts inside ten feet.  Just really work on hitting it on my line, hitting it down the line.  You know, today at the beginning of the day, I didn’t putt very well, but I was more trying to make putts instead of trying to hit them down the line and just let the ball go in the hole.

It’s the difference between trying and flying. It’s the difference between binding yourself up by trying to make putts rather than just having the intention of making putts and allowing your body the freedom to do it.

But you know, just as far as putting, it comes and goes.  I struggled a little bit this year with the putting, and then, you know, I’ve been practicing a pretty good bit with it lately and played good at The Tour Championship and this week, and putted good in Australia, too.  Putting is all about just repetition, keep doing the same thing over and over.

He also had some thoughts on the emotions of the moment when you get in that sort of pressure-cooker situation:

It’s definitely tense.  We are all grinding.  All three of us were grinding.  Wasn’t much talking going on between us the last few holes, because you know, I mean — but I know for me personally, I held it together pretty good.

Honestly, on 17, after I chipped in on 16, definitely I was feeling pretty good about where I was at and pretty comfortable, and then 17, my heart is beating a little fast for sure.  Not as much on the tee shot, but on the putt, you know, you can definitely feel everything is moving a little bit quicker.

But I still — it’s definitely nervous, but it’s a good nervous.  I thought I controlled my nerves very well today, and 18, I could feel the heat on 18, for sure.

One of the interesting things that’s come out in listening to the players’ comments is that that “good nervous” feeling is something they crave rather than avoid. It let’s them know that they’re playing well and in the hunt. And after some experience, they know to expect it and to revel in it. It’s the adrenaline rush:

I mean, obviously I’ve been in this situation time and time again, so you know, you practice and you train for this.  So I’ve put in a lot of work and a lot of practice.  But you still, even when you’re practicing, you can’t put your mind and your body in this situation.

So you know, it’s almost impossible to practice for that.  But you’ve just got to know in that situation, you’ve got to trust yourself and know what you’re doing, and like what you did to get there is the right thing.

So obviously I was playing well and swinging well and not trying to do anything different than what I have been doing.  Just keep doing what I’ve been doing; that’s what got me there, so why would I try to change it.

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