World No. 1 Dustin Johnson may have started the year in sublime fashion but he's playing down his chances ahead of his second appearance in Abu Dhabi.
World number one Dustin Johnson began his year in form befitting the rank he occupies and the American comes to the UAE capital this week hoping to go one better than his tie-for-second finish at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship last year.
Johnson dominated the No. 1 spot in 2017, leaping to first place as early as February 19 following his win at the Genesis Open in California and never letting go.
Genesis is an interesting name for a tournament that really saw the birth of Johnson as a true world beater.
Consistency has long been a trait for the 2016 US Open champion – he has not dropped outside of the world’s top 25 since entering it for the first time in February 2010. He has taken up permanent residency in the top 10 since breaking into it in March 2015.
It was a victory that cemented a place in history as he joined Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only three golfers in PGA Tour history to win a title in each of their first 10 seasons.
It was no flash in the pan either. It was part of a calendar year in which he carded four victories – including a hat-trick of titles with the WGC Mexico Championship and WGC Match Play following in straight succession.
But even though he started this year in fine fashion with victory in the PGA Tour season-opening Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks ago, Johnson isn’t participating in the hype that surrounds him.
“That (victory in Hawaii) was two weeks ago so it really doesn’t matter what I did there,” the 33-year-old said at his press conference ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship getting underway in the UAE capital on Thursday.
“This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I’ve got to start over again.”
Johnson finished a shot behind Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi 12 months ago, tied second with Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal.
It’s a course he feels comfortable on and one he is more familiar with, which might spell trouble for the rest of the field this week.
“I didn’t start too well on the first day (last year) but played very well the last three,” he says.
“I felt like this golf course suits me pretty well and I like the set-up of it. Last year was the first time being here. This year, I know the course a little bit better, so we’ll see. Hopefully I can play as well as I did in Hawaii.
“I obviously want to, I would love to win. But it’s four rounds. So when it comes to Sunday, I just want to be in a position where I have a chance to win.
“If I do all the right things for the next few days, then I definitely will have a chance Sunday. It’s hard to say I’m going to go out and win. That’s really tough. It’s a very good field. There’s a lot of great players.”
Despite his meteoric rise and sublime year, Johnson is realistic enough to know that even his form and progress in the last seven years can’t guarantee success.
“I could have a really good week and still lose, that’s just how golf is,” he added. “You lose a lot more times than you win, and it’s always going to be like that.”
Despite admitting he’s enjoyed a “perfect” start to the year, things don’t always run smoothly, even for world number ones.
After his sublime early success last year, he was headed to the Masters – the first major of the year – confidently. But, at Augusta, he fell down a staircase in the home he was renting for the tournament and suffered a back injury which ruled him out before even teeing off.
And he admits that incident gives him more motivation going into this year’s tournament – played from April 5-8 – seeking a second major title.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it this year,” said the South Carolina native.
“I was very disappointed I didn’t get to play last year, but things happen, you’ve just got to roll with it.
“But it’s a place where I always love going to play. I really like the golf course. The last two Masters I played in, I did very well, so I’m definitely excited to go back.
“Since Augusta, I struggled for a little while. But I finally felt like the game is starting to get back to the form it was, to this time last year where I had a really good run leading into Augusta.
“I’ve been working hard on the game, the swing feels like it’s finally getting back to where it was.”
The golf world is once again abuzz with the name of Tiger Woods, following the 14-time major winner’s return to competitive action at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas last month.
Woods finished eight under in a tie for ninth, his world ranking rocketing from 1,199th to 668th. The 42-year-old is expected to be in the field at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines next weekend, which would be his first official PGA Tour event in a year.
Sharing, or even giving up the limelight though, is not something that affects the current number one.
“It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s good for the game, him coming back,” said Johnson. “It brings a lot more attention to us, a lot more people are watching, talking about it. He’s very good for the game.
“He has been for a long time, so him not being really involved too much the last few years, it’s definitely made some room for other players to step up and take on a role.
“But he’s done so much for the game and will continue to do a lot for the game of golf. You only hope he plays well and if he does play well, it definitely is very good for us and for the world of golf.”