DJ in a spin: Can World No. 1 Dustin Johnson restore his game at The RBC Heritage?

Having ended 2020 in sensational form, Johnson’s 2021 campaign is sliding in the wrong direction as he prepares to tee it up at Harbour Town Golf Links.

Dustin Johnson hasn't lost his sense of humour, reportedly admitting that he is both the tallest Masters champion (in height) and also its shortest (in reign - just five months).

But he has definitely lost form.

The World No. 1 was imperious during the closing months of 2020 and yet he lurched to The RBC Heritage at Harbour Town this week not merely stuck in a rut, but actually enduring his worst run of results in over eight years.

His quality and potential demands that he starts the week on Hilton Head Island as the favourite, but are there good reasons to take him on?

Let's take a closer look.

The bump in the road

The sensational end-of-2020 form actually started a little sooner than it first appears, but due to injury it was something of a phoney war.

Johnson thrashed a third round 61 on his way to victory at the Travelers Championship in June, the first sign that something special was on its way - then a back injury derailed the train.

His missed the cut at the Memorial with two rounds of 80 and withdrew from the 3M Open after first round 78.

T12th at the WGC St Jude in the first week of August was confirmation that the problems were behind him.

The sweet spot

Another blistering Saturday performance, this time a third round 65 at Harding Park in the PGA Championship, earned him a one shot lead heading into the final round, but he couldn't quite convert, eventually finishing tied second behind Collin Morikawa.

A week later there was no mistake. He closed out The Northern Trust with rounds of 60-64-63 for a ridiculous 11 shot victory and only an inspired Jon Rahm could prevent him going back-to-back a week later in the BMW Championship before he closed out the 2019/20 season with more triumph in the Tour Championship.

The good golf rumbled on until he finally claimed that first Green Jacket at Augusta National in November, yet again making a significant move on Saturday - his 65 opening up four shot lead he extended to five on Sunday.

The deceptive start to 2021

A slow start at the Tournament of Champions prevented him from challenging for the title, but T11th was no disaster and a few weeks later he earned a second career victory in the Saudi International.

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It was a fifth win in 12 completed starts, a run that included 11 top 12 finishes.

He was flying high. The relentless nature of his scoring, some suggested, was getting Tiger-like. All was well with the world.

Or was it?

Backslide

During the final round in Saudi Arabia Johnson did not cut a particularly happy figure on the greens; he won in spite of his putter rather than because of it.

In his next appearance, at the Genesis Invitational, he continued to look uncomfortable at the business end of the holes, however he was also starting to look less assured from the tee.

He recorded T8th at Riviera, but has unravelled since.

He was T54th in the WGC Workday Championship, T48th at THE PLAYERS, T28th in the WGC Dell Match Play and missed the cut in defence of his Masters title.

The numbers

He's now gone four starts without a top 25 finish and the last time that happened? Early 2013.

The lack of Strokes Gained stats from his last two starts (the Match Play and the Masters) makes comparisons a little tricky, but nonetheless the limited data paints a vivid enough picture.

Johnson has started to struggle with both the long and short game.
Johnson has started to struggle with both the long and short game.

He ranked 22nd for SG Tee to Green at the PGA Championship but then never worse than 8th until the Genesis Invitational.

That dropped to 27th at the Workday and 65th at THE PLAYERS.

Traditional stats back up that long game trend.

From The Northern Trust until the Genesis? Never worse than 13th for Greens in Regulation (and typically far higher).

Then 48th at the Workday and 58th at THE PLAYERS. He missed the cut at the Masters so had no ranking but hitting 55.60% would have had him ranked around 50th.

What about putting? From the PGA Championship to the end of 2020 he made strokes on the greens at every event measured.

But, in 2021, he's done so only once.

A Harbour Town fix?

Are the tree-lined fairways, small greens and blustery breezes of Hilton Head Island a good fit for rehabilitation?

Johnson thinks so.

"I love playing this event," he said Wednesday. "It's a great golf course.

"It's a tough course, too, so you know you don't have to shoot real low, which I like. I feel like the last few years I've played it pretty well. So yeah, somewhere I look forward to playing."

His record, itself, is less cheery.

He's yet to land a top 15 finish and his one golden opportunity, when leading by one stroke with 18 holes to play in 2019, saw him respond with a 77 for T28th.

This week

Johnson was honest about his problems at Augusta: "I really struggled with the putting. I mean, probably the worst I've putted in a long time last week.

"But it's better, feels better, a lot more comfortable. I put in a lot of work and it feels like I'm hitting putts on my line. Other than that, I feel like the game is in pretty good form."

He's also correct in saying he's improved at Harbour Town in recent years: he failed to break 71 in missing cuts in 2008 and 2009, but the last three years he's gone sub-70 ten times in posting T16th-T28th-T17th.

Paddy Power price Johnson 11/1 to win the tournament outright and 25/1 to claim the first round lead.

He's 23/10 for a top five finish, 4/7 for a top 20, 1/8 to make the cut and 9/2 to miss it.

If you want to oppose him in a match bet, Patrick Cantlay (three Harbour Town visits, never outside the top seven) is 11/10 and Webb Simpson (defending champion, all of his last four course finishes in the top 16) is 8/11.

READ MORE: Reluctant flyer Webb Simpson ready to drive and thrive

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