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Defending champ Dustin Johnson back in form as Genesis Open is set to begin

Defending champ Dustin Johnson back in form as Genesis Open is set to begin
Dustin Johnson competes during the Pro-Am of the Genesis Open at the Riviera Country Club on Wednesday in Pacific Palisades. (Warren Little / Getty Images)

Dustin Johnson says he's playing about as well now as he was at this time a year ago. He loves Riviera Country Club, site of this week's Genesis Open. He likes being the No. 1 golfer in the world, and has no intention of relinquishing that position.

He's intensely competitive in almost everything he does, though his almost-stoic demeanor on the course makes it difficult to tell whether he's made his third consecutive birdie (a common occurrence) or launched a tee shot into the woods (a rare one).

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All of that makes, Johnson, who jumped to No. 1 a year ago with a five-shot victory in this event, the likely player to beat once the first round gets under way Thursday morning.

"It's definitely difficult to stay No. 1; I use it as motivation to keep working," said Johnson, only the fifth player to hold on to that ranking for 52 consecutive weeks.

"It's something I worked very hard to get, and something I'm going to work very hard to maintain."

Holding on to the ranking was a challenge. He won his next two tournaments after Riviera a year ago and came to Augusta for the Masters playing the best golf of his life. Then he slipped in the house he was renting, injured his back, had to pull out of the first major championship of the year and spent the next five months trying to regain the form that had made him the most daunting player on tour.

"It was bad," Johnson, 33, recalled recently. "My first thought was I broke my back. And it wasn't just my back. Both my elbows hurt; I was definitely in severe pain."

He took a month off but didn't win again until the Northern Trust in late August.

"I knew there was nothing structurally wrong, it was just badly bruised, and it took time to get everything working again," he said. "And playing didn't contribute to getting it better."

He started 2018 with an eight-shot victory in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, a win that included an explosive tee shot that stopped six inches from the cup on a 433-yard par four.

"He's impressive," Phil Mickelson said. "Especially with the driver, where he starts the par fours and par fives from significantly longer than most everybody out here."

Johnson acknowledges that his driving is an advantage; it has helped him average a tour-best 68.7 strokes a round this year. "I'm driving pretty well right now," he said.

Does that create problems for the other players? "Yeah, it does."

Ernie Els, a former No. 1 player, believes Johnson will be a force for a while.

"He's got the whole package," Els said. "He's talented, has every shot, doesn't overthink too much on the course. He has an unbelievable body, 6 feet 4, very athletic.

"The way he plays you've got to think there'll be one, two, three Masters. He's already won a U.S. Open, he's got 17 wins. These things will keep coming."

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That's not to say Johnson hasn't had his difficulties closing. He shot an 82 in the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach after holding the 54-hole lead; his three-putt from 12 feet cost him the 2015 Open; he lost a six-shot lead in the final round of the World Golf Championships in Shanghai last October, and last week at Pebble Beach he lost by three after beginning the final round tied for the lead.

He has managed to store those memories deep into his subconscious. "It really doesn't matter what you did yesterday," he said after winning the Tournament of Champions. "It's all about pushing forward."

He's happy where his game is now.

"I didn't feel like I had my best stuff last week," he said, "but I still was there in contention with a chance to win on Sunday, which shows that my game is definitely getting back to where it was….

"I feel just as good as I did last year" at this time.

Johnson will tee off Thursday just after noon with Adam Scott and Bubba Watson. Other feature pairings include Justin Thomas-Rory McIlroy-Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson-Matt Kuchar-Tommy Fleetwood, and Jordan Spieth-Patrick Cantlay-Kevin Chappell.

Bill Haas will not be playing. He was hospitalized and released Tuesday evening when the car he was riding in lost control in Pacific Palisades. The driver, Mark Gibello, was killed in the crash; Haas was not seriously injured but pulled out of the tournament to return home to South Carolina.

Johnson, like many of the other players, learned the news Wednesday morning.

"Thankfully Bill's OK," Johnson said. "That's what I was concerned about when I first heard about it."

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