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Published February 23, 2017
The only question about Dustin Johnson going to No. 1 in the world is: What took so long?
The talent was never an issue.
Jordan Spieth once referred to Johnson as "a freak athlete," a term rarely heard in golf. Pat Perez was partly in awe and partly exasperated Sunday as he stood behind the 10th green during the final round at Riviera and said, "The guy hits it 40 yards by me, hits his short irons great and makes 30-foot putts. What do you do?"
Johnson looked like a world-beater against the strongest field of the year at the Genesis Open. He went 49 consecutive holes without a bogey. During the third round Sunday morning, when he shot a 7-under 64 and built a five-shot lead, his two longest par putts were from 4 feet. On the 606-yard 17th hole in the second round, on a day when no one could get it back to the flag, Johnson went over the green.
With his five-shot victory, he became the 20th player since the world ranking began in 1986 to reach No. 1.
And it never crossed his mind.
Neither did the 72-hole scoring record at Riviera, set in 1985 by Lanny Wadkins at 20-under 264, making it the oldest such record on the PGA Tour schedule. Johnson didn't even know what the record was, nor did he care. He was at 20 under after making his 21st birdie of the week at the par-3 sixth, played it safe from there with a big lead and closed with three meaningless bogeys for a 71.
"Winning the golf tournament ... that's what I was here to do," Johnson said.
That's what he's been doing ever since his rookie season. Johnson has won every year on the PGA Tour except for 2014, which was cut short when he stepped away for six months to seek professional help for personal challenges amid a published report he had tested positive twice for drugs.
He found guidance from hockey great Wayne Gretzky — Johnson is engaged to the Great One's daughter, they have a 2-year-old son and Paulina Gretzky announced this week on Instagram that another one is on the way. Gretzky's words carry a lot of weight on and off the golf course.
"When an athlete of his stature ... thinks very highly of you, it definitely gives you a lot of confidence and gives you more belief," Johnson said.
Johnson won in his fifth tournament back from that six-month break to get back into the top 10 in the world, and it's been a slow rise ever since. He won his first major in the U.S. Open at Oakmont the following year, added his third World Golf Championships title, a FedEx Cup playoff event and swept all the big awards, starting with PGA Tour player of the year.
And now he's No. 1.
"No surprise to us players, and I don't think too much surprise to many others," Jordan Spieth said.
Dating to that U.S. Open victory, Johnson has won four times in the last eight months against the strongest fields in golf. In 16 tournaments since, he has finished no worse than third place in eight of them.
He could hear chants of "No. 1" when he walked up to the 18th green at Riviera, with fans crammed onto the hillside below the storied clubhouse. When he tapped in for par, he headed for the side of the green toward his fiancé to pick up their young son.
"Little man" is what Johnson calls him, and there already are tales that he's a lot like his father. Gretzky told of the time Tatum was going through the house and banged his head on a table. The boy rubbed it for a second and kept right on running. Nothing fazed him, and the same is true of Johnson.
Major setbacks? Johnson might be the leader in the clubhouse. He lost one major with an 82 in the final round, another when he grounded his club in sand without realizing it was a bunker. The most crushing was the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, when Johnson had a 12-foot eagle putt to win and three-putted to lose.
And he rubbed his head and kept right on going.
This was his largest margin of victory, and it could have been worse. Johnson arrived at Riviera on Sunday morning with a one-shot lead to play 36 holes — the tournament was delayed all week by fog and rain — and one burst was all it took. He closed out the third round with three straight birdies , had 14 minutes before starting the final round and started with two birdies. At one point, his lead was up to nine before he coasted in.
Johnson will be in Mexico City in two weeks where Jason Day, who had spent 47 weeks at the top of the ranking, will try to take it back.
"If he keeps playing the way he's playing, we've all got to pick our games up and try and compete against him," Day said. "Because he's playing some good golf."