Year of the Collapse?
Dustin Johnson made sure that trend was so 2012.
Struggling with his driver down the stretch, Johnson pulled himself together by chipping in for eagle on the 14th hole, carrying him to a four-shot victory over Steve Stricker at the weather-plagued, season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
“It gives me a lot of confidence going into this year,” Johnson said afterward. “I’m very pleased to come out and get a win this week. I played really good golf the past two days.”
With the victory – the seventh of his career, the most by any player under 30 – the 28-year-old Johnson became the first player since Tiger Woods to win in each of his first six seasons out of college. He also moved to 3-0 in 54-hole events.
In the most benign conditions of the week – which is to say bountiful sunshine and wind gusts to 30 mph – Johnson closed with a 5-under 68 Tuesday on the Plantation Course to finish the shortened event at 16-under 203, four clear of Stricker (69). Brandt Snedeker (69) was third, another two shots behind.
''It was nowhere near ho-hum,'' Johnson said. ''I had to really fight hard.''
Despite a huge advantage off the tee – on the 11th, for instance, his drive sailed 120 yards farther than Stricker’s – Johnson uncorked two wild tee shots that nearly cost him the title. His lost tee ball on the ninth led to a bogey on the reachable par 5, and an overcooked drive on the short 13th resulted in a double bogey that trimmed his lead to one.
''We found a shoe, some sunglasses, about five or six other balls,'' said Stricker. ''There might have been a guy living up in the tree.''
On the very next hole, however, Johnson responded by nearly driving the green on the 305-yard par 4, then pitched in for eagle to return his lead to three shots. He tacked on birdies at 15 and 18, as well.
“He gave me a couple openings there, but he came back strong,' Stricker said.
''It looks like very little fear in him. Because he'll hit one a little crooked, but he'll pull out that driver again and try it again. And he pulled it off, especially at 14. That was the deciding shot and chip for the tournament. Expect a lot of good things as he continues his career.''
Trailing Johnson by five shots with 11 holes to play, Stricker made a run at back-to-back titles at Kapalua, pulling within a shot at one point, but his back-nine 36 wasn’t enough to catch Johnson. Still, it was an encouraging performance for a semi-retired golfer who is dealing with a pinched nerve in his left leg.
Johnson certainly wouldn’t mind a pain-free season. One of the Tour’s longest hitters underwent knee surgery in late 2011, and then missed three months the following season after injuring his back. Upon returning to the Tour last June, Johnson showed glimpses of his immense talent, winning the St. Jude Classic, finishing inside the top 10 in each of the four FedEx Cup playoff events and earning a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.