LOS ANGELES – On Tuesday, Dustin Johnson joined an exclusive club.
He didn’t add to his growing trophy collection. In fact, he actually dropped a surprising decision at Pebble Beach on Sunday after taking a share of the lead into the final round, but we’ll circle back around to that.
On Tuesday, DJ became just the fifth player to hold the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking for a full calendar year, joining the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo.
To keep things in context, the ranking has been around only since 1986, but it’s an impressive accomplishment nonetheless considering the parity in golf at the moment. Not that Johnson sounded as if he was spending much time relishing his tenure at the top.
“On Mondays usually," he said when asked how often he checked the ranking. "That's about it, though. Just to see what's going on. I still don't really understand them, but I could read ‘[No.] 1.’”
Like most things with DJ, compartmentalization is often confused for indifference.
Johnson pays more attention to the mathematical formula than he lets on, even if, like most of us, he doesn’t perfectly understand the countless computations.
“He likes it, being world No. 1, and he’s adamant about keeping it,” said Johnson’s swing coach, Butch Harmon.
In recent weeks Johnson’s status atop the world heap has been challenged by Jon Rahm, who could have ascended to the top spot at either the Farmers Insurance Open or last week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am depending on DJ’s finish despite the Spaniard not playing last week.
Although he often comes across as aloof when he talks publicly about the ranking, there was an edge to Johnson's voice Wednesday as he prepared for this week’s Genesis Open.
It was Johnson’s five-stroke victory last year at Riviera Country Club that elevated him to the top of the mountain and started a torrid run that only an untimely spill on the eve of the Masters ended.
“It's nice. It's been a tough year,” Johnson said. “Obviously starting here I was playing really, really well, and then the injury at Augusta kind of derailed me a little bit.”
Johnson won his next two starts, both World Golf Championship events, after the Genesis Open, and arrived at the year’s first major the consensus favorite before falling in his rental house and injuring his back.
It took about a year for Johnson to feel fully healthy again and he opened this year with another commanding performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight strokes.
Although last week’s runner-up showing at Pebble Beach, where he closed with an even-par 72 to tie for second place, was surprising considering his status as a front-runner, it was also an interesting indication of the state of his game.
“Last week I didn't feel like I had my best stuff, but I still was there in contention with a chance to win on Sunday, which shows me that my game is definitely getting back to where it was,” Johnson said. “It feels better today than it did last week, so that's really good.”
Actually, Harmon said Johnson’s game was closer to 70 percent last week, particularly his driving which is always a gauge of how he’s playing.
But he’s close. Close to being back at his best and to the level where he was when he scorched the PGA Tour last spring.
“It’s pretty close, .5,” he said to compare where his game is now to 12 months ago. “I feel just as good as I did last year.”
Harmon took a slightly more detailed approach.
“It was a little better at this point last year. He’s been skiing and last week he was a little off and just needs to fine tune some things,” Harmon said. “But I can see him having the same momentum [as he did last year].”
And that might be the biggest difference between DJ 2017 and the current model. While all of the tumblers were falling perfectly into place at this point last year, this time around seems a little more calculated.
Even last week when he lost to Ted Potter Jr., who was plying his trade on the Web.com Tour 12 months ago, was an encouraging sign.
But most of all he’s motivated. He’s motivated to ride another wave of momentum down Magnolia Lane, motivated to stay healthy and, yes, absolutely motivated to maintain the top spot in the world ranking.
“It's definitely difficult to stay No. 1,” Johnson said. “The guys out here are very, very good and there's a lot of very talented players. But for me, I use it as motivation to keep working harder and to keep doing the things that I'm doing.”