“No lead is safe” has become one of the most-used clichés in the sports world. It is probably spoken most often by television analysts, at the request of their producers, in a vain attempt to keep viewers tuned into a match that has lost competitive interest.
Sometimes it, and its other variations, are used by coaches as part of an inspired half-time Hail Mary. It is easy to say, but difficult to believe.
Dustin Johnson’s six-stroke 54-hole lead at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China felt as safe as leads come. True, DJ has been on the failing end of some spectacular failures and collapses, but that was the old Dustin Johnson.
This Dustin Johnson is 33 and much more mature than he used to be.
This Dustin Johnson is now a major champion (2016 U.S. Open) and a 16-time PGA Tour champion.
This Dustin Johnson is the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer, and is coming off a four-victory season.
This Dustin Johnson has won two WGC events in 2017, and has the second-most victories in WGC history.
Six strokes at a WGC for the World No. 1 with 18 holes to go? Nobody else really believed they had a shot, regardless of what they may say in future interviews.
As it turned out, even this lead was not safe. Aided enormously by Johnson’s shocking birdie-free 5-over 77 in the blustery final round of the WGC-HSBC Champions, the first WGC event of the new season was captured by Justin Rose, another former U.S. Open winner, who shot a 5-under 67 to incredibly erase an eight-shot deficit and win by two strokes over Johnson, Henrik Stenson, and Brooks Koepka.
For Johnson, the collapse tied the PGA Tour record for largest 54-lead given up. For Rose, it was the third-furthest come-from-behind victory ever. Rose thought he was playing for second, but somehow, he finished first.
FINAL TOP 10: WGC-HSBC CHAMPIONS
1 Justin Rose -14
2 Henrik Stenson -12
2 Brooks Koepka -12
2 Dustin Johnson -12
5 Rafa Cabrera-Bello -8
5 Peter Uihlein -8
5 Kyle Stanley -8
8 Brian Harman -7
9 Bernd Wiesberger -6
9 Matthew Fitzpatrick -6
T11 Jason Day, Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton -5
T15 Phil Mickelson, Patrick Cantlay -4
T20 Tommy Fleetwood -3
T24 Pat Perez, Daniel Berger -2
T31 Alex Noren, Matt Kuchar -1
T36 Jon Rahm E
T38 Marc Leishman +1
T46 Xander Schauffele +3
T50 Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama +4
HOW ROSE WON IT
Through three rounds, Justin Rose was at 9-under, and sitting in fourth place, coming off a disappointing even-par 72 on Saturday. He made an early move with birdies on 2 and 3, and added another on 7, but with bogeys on 6, 8, and 9 he hit the turn at even-par for the day.
Then the fireworks started. Rose was in Olympic Gold form on the back nine, with five birdies and no bogeys, to shoot a co-field best 5-under 67, and get into the clubhouse at 14-under.
Rose’s 23 birdies for the week were the most of anyone in the field. His birdie on the par-4 13th was especially important, as it was, according to Rose, the first time on Sunday where he felt he actually had a chance to win.
Then, after he birdied the par-5 14th, he noticed he was closing in on the lead, and kept his foot on the pedal down the stretch, making two more birdies on 16 and 17. In all, Rose made up six shots on the lead over the final nine holes.
HOW DJ LOST IT
Having not played since last month’s Presidents Cup, the concern coming into the WGC-HSBC for Johnson was that he might be a little rusty. Those concerns were dashed quickly, as he shot 68-63-68 over the first three rounds, reaching 17-under, six shots ahead of Saturday and Sunday playing partner Brooks Koepka.
However, Sunday was a different story. Johnson finished 11th in birdie average last season, and carded 22 over the first three days, but did not manage a single one on Sunday. Even with zero, DJ still finished T2 in the field in birdies, which well-illustrates how dominant he was over the first three rounds.
His first two bogeys came on the first two holes. After nine straight pars, DJ then bogeyed 12, 15, and 16 to fall behind Rose.
Needing an eagle on the par-5 final hole to force a playoff, Johnson hit his second shot into the water, ending his hopes of a sixth career WGC victory.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ROSE
For most of the PGA Tour’s big guns, the HSBC Champions was their last competitive golf of 2017. Rose, however, still has another mountain to climb. In spite of entering just 10 qualifying tournaments on the season, Rose’s victory propelled him to 3rd in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai standings, with their playoffs beginning next week.
Rose was already in great form, having posted a runner-up and three T10s during the recent FedExCup Playoffs, and this win in China puts him among the favorites in Europe.
This win also raises Rose back into the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings when they come out on Monday.
OTHER GREAT SUNDAYS
Red scores were difficult to come by in Sunday’s windy conditions in Shanghai, but in addition to Rose, another elite player managed to post a 5-under 67.
Phil Mickelson, playing in his final 2017 tournament, bogeyed two of his first three holes, but caught fire from there, carding seven birdies and an eagle to post his 67.
The tremendous round moved Mickelson 30 spots up the final leaderboard, into a tie for 15th at 4-under-par. It will be a while before he tees it up competitively again, but this result, combined with his T3 at the recent Safeway Open, is an incredibly encouraging start to his 26th professional season.
A bogey on the par-5 8th hole was the only blemish on the card of Jason Day, who shot a 4-under 68. That makes back-to-back T11s for Day to start his 2017-18 season, which should be considered a positive for him, after he failed to find the winner’s circle in 2017 after winning eight in the previous two seasons combined.
For the third time in three events of the new season, CIMB Classic champion Pat Perez had one of the lowest final rounds in the field. A 3-under 69 was eclipsed by only four players on Sunday (Rose, Mickelson, Day, and Richard Sterne), and moved Perez back into the top 25 after a third-round 76 torpedoed his hopes of a second victory in the new season.
Perez still leads the current FedExCup Standings.
OTHER SUNDAY STRUGGLES
Johnson was not the only player in at Sheshan International Golf Club to fade in the tough Sunday conditions.
Matt Kuchar, who finished runner-up at The Open Championship earlier this year, looked nowhere near championship form on Sunday, shooting a 6-over 78 that caused him to plummet 22 spots down the final leaderboard from T9 to T31.
A double-bogey on the par-5 2nd hole proved to be too difficult to overcome for Kuchar, as he was never able to get much of anything going, notching six more bogeys to just two birdies.
Coming into the week, nobody in the golf world was hotter than Tyrrell Hatton, who was looking to win his third consecutive European Tour event after emphatically busting out of a year-long slump.
Hatton was under par in each of his first three rounds, but a bogey 7 on the par-5 18th hole meant a final round 2-over 74, far below the standard he has set over the past month, but he is still among the favorites going into the Race to Dubai standings, where he current ranks fifth.
QUOTABLE: JUSTIN ROSE
“It’s been a long time since I’ve won, or at least it feels like that. I guess it’s actually— well, I’ve won every year since 2010, if you include the Olympics last year; that was my only win. This is my only win in 2017. I left it late this year, but it feels amazing.”
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