The body language was telling.
Dustin Johnson usually didn’t give much away. Yet the world’s top-ranked golfer would raise a clinched fist after each birdie, acknowledging the large throng of people who followed him during Sunday’s finals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.
There were three such times to celebrate a birdie.
The fourth came after a routine four-foot putt for par on the 18th, giving Johnson the victory — his third straight in as many starts — and its $1.66 million paycheck. Johnson’s fiance, Paulina Gretzky, and his young son joined him moments after the putt gave him the 1 up victory over Jon Rahm.
“This was a tough one,” Johnson said. “It was a tough match today against Jon. And I really didn’t give him anything. I three-putted 10. That was about the only hole I gave him. He played tough.”
Rahm, the 22-year-old from Spain who played for Arizona State, desperately wanted to beat Johnson. He wanted to be the youngest winner of the Dell tournament. He mused about his match with Johnson on social media. His main goal was to prove to the rest of the field that he deserved to be there.
Rahm was as emotional as Johnson was emotionless. Rahm openly winced if he made a bad shot. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat off his forehead. He gave a pleading look to his putter, trying to figure out what was going so wrong early in the round.
Rahm grew more animated as the the course wound toward the shores of Lake Austin and onto the back nine. What had been a five-hole advantage for Johnson deteriorated as Rahm got hot and began dropping birdie putts.
By the 18th hole, Johnson’s lead was down to one.
But Rahm was crestfallen after his birdie putt on the final hole flew six feet past the pin. In the middle of his putt, someone slammed the bathroom door on a portable toilet. Rahm conceded the noise startled him, that he briefly diverted his eyes, which screwed up his putt. After he saw his mistake, he rubbed his chin, then turned away.
“It feels so bad because of all the work I did on the back nine to come from almost five down to almost have a chance,” Rahm said.
Johnson won his third straight tournament of the year. He also became the first golfer ever to win all four WGC tournaments. And he upped his record to 12-3 in Austin. A year ago, Johnson reached the quarterfinals. This past week, he won all seven matches, most by a comfortable margin. He was so dominant that he never trailed in any match and he led for 105 of the 112 holes he played.
Meanwhile, Bill Haas overcame a two-hole deficit to beat Hideto Tanihara for third place. Tanihara had the most dramatic shot of the entire tournament early in his round. His tee shot on the 207-yard par 3 seventh hit the front of the green and rolled for more than 30 feet into the hole. It was only the fourth-ever hole in one in the 19-year tournament history.
But Tanihara couldn’t continue his magic. He posted four bogeys on the back nine. Haas’ par on No. 17 clinched victory.
“I thought I played — I played my worse that match of any match,” Haas said of his win over Tanihara. “And I think maybe he was a little tired as well as I was.”
It had been a marathon day of golf, starting at 9 a.m. and finishing nine hours later.
In the semifinals, Tanihara pushed Johnson to the limit. Johnson won, 1 up, but the two were tied from Nos. 14-16. Rahm’s semifinal against Haas ended on the 16th hole. The two had been tied until the 13th hole. That’s when Rahm reeled off four birdies in five holes.
Rahm had thrown a scare into Johnson earlier this month at WGC-Mexico. Johnson won the tournament, but Rahm blasted through the back nine on the final round with an eagle and two birdies. Rahm finished in a tie for third.
Although Johnson didn’t openly show it Sunday, he said he was feeling the pressure from Rahm.
He said his pulse “was pretty good. It got a little faster than I would have liked starting on about 16. But I was able to hang in there.”