At the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, Dustin Johnson showed why he might be the best player in the world under 30.
Johnson has more PGA Tour victories than Rory McIlroy, who earned a tie for sixth in China to lock up a spot in the season-ending Race to Dubai event. The 24-year-old Northern Irishman beat Tiger Woods in an exhibition on Monday. After the win, McIlroy defended Tiger against Brandel Chamblee, who apologized to Woods on Wednesday night on the Golf Channel for insinuating in a golf.com column that Tiger was a cheater.
So how did Johnson pull out his first WGC victory?
1. Shanghai sizzle
Johnson went 5 under in his last six holes Sunday, including an eagle at the short par-4 16th, to shoot a 6-under 66 for his eighth PGA Tour title.
His 24-under total was good enough for a 3-shot win over Ian Poulter, the defending champion.
Johnson, the 29-year-old former Coastal Carolina star, now has the most wins of any PGA Tour player under 30. The Columbia, S.C., native has now earned at least one win in his first seven seasons on tour.
At the Sheshan International Golf Club, Johnson beat the strongest field of this new wraparound 2013-14 season with 40 of the top 50 in the world in the tournament.
"This is probably my biggest win with the field and the tournament," said Johnson, who won his first event of the 2013 season in Hawaii.
After that victory, back and wrist injuries limited him for most of the year.
Every year it seems like it's Johnson's time to win a major or get three or four victories. He should have that kind of breakthrough this season if he can stay healthy.
At his best, he's hard to beat. He's laid-back, one of the true athletes on tour and one of the longest drivers of the golf ball in the world. His is a low-soaring ball that runs forever.
Johnson's biggest hurdle is perhaps the threat of underachieving. How he overcomes the lethargy of being so good without trying too hard is a matter of focus.
At times, he can check out mentally. In the third round Saturday, Johnson had 10 birdies, but he also had two double-bogeys. With that many birdies, he could afford a few mistakes, but little miscues caused by a shaky short game could cost him in the majors.
Now in his seventh year on tour, he's ready to face the world on his own terms. The HSBC Champions won't remain his biggest win for very long.
McIlroy called the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament a make-or-break event for him. He needed to have a good week to get inside the top 60 to qualify for the Race to Dubai season-ending event. After a very disappointing and winless season, McIlroy was trying to avert a double dose of embarrassment after not making it to the FedEx Cup finale in September.
After a tie for sixth at the HSBC, McIlroy made a leap from 62nd to 38th in the standings, easily qualifying him for the Dubai field.
McIlroy's improved play isn't due to one single thing. His overall game just looks sharper. His short game is probably in the best shape it's been in all year. More importantly, he looks to have put the disappointments of the past season behind him and can project the confidence that propelled him to No. 1 in the world in 2012.
In 2014, he should win three times around the world and make a strong bid to regain that top spot in the world from Woods.
3. Play your position
Chamblee admitted Wednesday that he went too far in insinuating that Woods was a cheater.
Tiger never said it, but judging by some of his comments and those of his agent, Mark Steinberg, Woods wanted Chamblee's main employer, the Golf Channel, to do something about one of its top analysts.
Does Chamblee's mea culpa with Tiger signal the end of this minor controversy? It's too soon to say. But hopefully both Chamblee and Woods can move on with a measure of mutual respect for the work they each do. They have important jobs.
Chamblee is an analyst, a provocateur with the stage to unsettle any orthodoxies that fans might carry about the game and its best players. Sometimes "going too far" is one of the outcomes of dealing with serious questions.
You grant a player with Tiger's record the benefit of the doubt on cheating. Tiger has won 79 PGA Tour events, including 14 majors. Chamblee might have let his role as instigator get in the way of his better judgment.
McIlroy's comments on the subject at the HSBC Champions stand out as the kind of arrogance that's dangerous for athletes to have with the media.
"I think Brandel was completely wrong," McIlroy said. "I don't think he has the authority to say anything like that about Tiger Woods.
"People wouldn't know who Brandel Chamblee was if it wasn't for Tiger Woods, so yeah, I am completely against what he said and I think he should be dealt with in the right way."
How does an analyst earn the authority to say anything of that nature about Tiger or any other player?
Tiger and Chamblee can both learn something from this, and if their paths should cross at an event, hopefully it's a chance for them to have an earnest talk about those infamous rules infractions as analyst and athlete.
Bubba Watson, the 2012 Masters champion, got his first top-10 since June with a tie for eighth at the HSBC Champions.
Watson didn't make it to the Tour Championship.
On the face of his spectacular win at the Masters, it was easy to expect more from the 34-year-old Watson. But the miraculous nature of that wedge shot in the playoff at Augusta underscored the unrealistic regard we place on majors over other tournaments.
The Bagdad, Fla., native might have taken the green jacket, but he may have wanted consistency in his game more.
"Last year if I don't hit the hook shot and I don't win, I don't have a win all year, even though it was my best year on tour," Watson said earlier this year. "You know, year before I had two wins. Year before I had one win here.
"You can miss every cut, and the media and your friends look at you, you won one tournament, but you missed all your cuts, they still think you had a great year, even though in your head you're like I missed so many cuts. So I'm looking at it trying to be more consistent."
Watson's rounds of 68, 69, 69 and 68 in Shanghai are a good step toward achieving that goal of consistency in the new season.
5. Domestic affairs
The PGA Tour announced on Sunday in Shanghai that it was partnering with the China Golf Association to create the China Tour, a series of 12 events in that country that will give top finishers access to the Web.com Tour.
The tournament calendar begins in March.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said he hopes the new partnership will accelerate the growth of the game in China, which is the biggest emerging market in the game with more than 1.3 billion people and about 360,000 golfers.
This is great news from a global perspective, for Chinese golf and all of Asia. But I hope the tour can also do more to develop the game and young players in the U.S., where it is based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Since 1986, only one African-American has earned a PGA Tour card through Q-school. Tiger Woods is the only person of African-American heritage on the regular tour.
More than just the First Tee, which teaches golf and life skills to many kids from nontraditional golfing homes, the U.S. game is in need of a grassroots-level effort to develop good young players who can compete at the elite level from minority and poor backgrounds.
Golf is one of the most difficult sports to learn and develop a game without access to significant financial resources at an early age.
It's one of a handful of the popular sports in the U.S. that still doesn't reflect the changing racial makeup of the country. The growth of the game in China could serve the game globally, but shouldn't we also be working to guarantee a place for young black and Hispanic golfers and players from disadvantaged economic and geographic backgrounds?
In every other major sport in the U.S., a young boy or girl can dream and find resources to succeed mostly at a team level from high school into the pros. If the tour can increase its presence in Asia, it can surely expand on the domestic front. Both are vital to the growth of the game.