Still basking in the glow of his victory at the CJ Cup, Brooks Koepka is just getting used to his newfound status as the world’s top-ranked golfer. But if Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose have a say, Koepka could be supplanted just as quickly as he assumed the top spot.
All three players factored last year at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, and all three have returned this week to Shanghai to headline a stacked field in the last WGC event until March. Johnson appeared in line for an easy victory at Sheshan International GC in 2017, only to cough up a five-shot lead in the final round. He tied for second, alongside Koepka, while Rose raced from eight shots back to win his first event of what turned out to be a FedExCup-winning campaign.
As Koepka looks to notch his fourth win of the year and his second in as many weeks, he’ll need to keep both Johnson and Rose at bay. The more significant challenge could come from Johnson, who won this event in 2013 and would re-take the No. 1 ranking with another victory. In fact, he could finish as low as solo third this week and still pass Koepka, provided his close friend and workout buddy finishes T-35 or worse.
“We’ve got a really good relationship,” Johnson told reporters in China about his bond with Koepka. “He’s a really good player, and obviously I do OK, too. Yeah, it’s a great relationship and we push each other to get better. And yes, there is a lot of trash talking.”
Based on recent trends, it seems likely that Johnson will get back to the top spot sooner rather than later. He enjoyed an uninterrupted run at No. 1 from February 2017 to The Players this past May, when Justin Thomas passed him. But it took Johnson only two starts to get back to No. 1 following a win in Memphis.
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He needed only one start to overtake Rose last month, finishing third at the Tour Championship to ensure that the Englishman would take $10 million from East Lake but not the No. 1 ranking. Now he’ll need to make the most of a rare fall start or resign himself to starting the new year in a chase position.
“It’s important just because it’s the only event I play in the fall, at the beginning of the season,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to play again until January, which will be in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.”
Johnson would move to No. 1 with a win regardless of Koepka’s finish, while a solo second would need Koepka to finish T-4 or worse.
The latter scenario would also require Rose to not successfully defend his title. Rose is currently ranked No. 3 in the world, and he could finish as low as two-way T-2 in China and still move past both Koepka and Johnson. But he would need help from both players, especially Koepka: if Rose tied for second, Koepka could retain world No. 1 by finishing as low as 56th among the 78-man field.
Rose enjoyed a two-week stint at No. 1 following his playoff loss at the BMW Championship, and he remains motivated to return to the top after experiencing a taste.
“Getting to world No. 1, that’s a milestone moment,” Rose told reporters. “I feel like getting to world No. 1 is a career’s amount of work, really. That milestone, hitting that was probably pretty special.”
After Johnson controlled the top spot for more than a year, Koepka is now the fourth different player to hold the No. 1 ranking since May. With all three contenders in the field this week, there could be further turnover before the PGA Tour leaves Asia.