Dustin Johnson won what the entire world hopes will be the only Masters Tournament ever contested without patrons, delayed by a pandemic disease. But take away the Coronavirus masks, turn the color of the trees back about six weeks, and look at Augusta National Golf Club and the 2020 Masters with the right kind of eyes, and it’s plain as day that this “Masters Unlike Any Other,” is just as exciting, mesmerizing and historic as any other Masters.
Johnson blended Herculean power with sublime touch in conquering Augusta National in record setting fashion. Once again, as has happened repeatedly in the last decade, major golf records were shattered en masse. His 20-under score to par ties the all-time major championship record with Sweden’s Henrik Stenson (the 2016 Open Championship at Troon) and Australia’s Jason Day (the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits). It also breaks the previous Masters record of 18-under 270 (Tiger Woods in 1997 and Jordan Spieth in 2015).
Johnson also set the record for fewest bogeys for the week, a paltry four. That record used to held by Woods and Jack Nicklaus, rarified air indeed, as if joining the green jacket club wasn’t reward enough.
DJ won going away. The final margin was five shots over South Korea’s Sungjae Im and Australia’s Cameron Smith, and the issue was never seriously in doubt after the seventh hole. Starting the day with a four-shot lead, Johnson saw it shrink to just one after back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5.
That’s not all that uncommon. Golf newbies tend to look at large 54-hole leads as almost impregnable – as in “how’d a guy blow four shots like that?” But four shots is one bad swing and one bad decision. And seeing how there’s 18 holes to survive, there’s more than enough time for disaster to strike -- frequently at Augusta, that comes at number 12. It happens usually at the most inopportune time.
Johnson has blown big leads at majors on more than one occasion, most notably the four-shot lead he had after 54 holes at Pebble Beach in the 2010 U.S. Open. That lead was gone after three holes.
But Johnson also overcame a 54-hole, four-shot deficit to Ireland’s Shane Lowry in winning the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, and that was the memory most certainly in his head and his caddie’s, his brother A.J., as they stood on the sixth tee. This was the turning point; not the three consecutive birdies on 13, 14, and 15. Those were the coronation.
Im had Johnson right where he wanted him, leaking oil early at Augusta. Once you start to lose momentum at Augusta National, you can plummet down the leaderboard like your parachute didn’t open. Jordan Spieth, Rory McIroy, Greg Norman, even Arnold Palmer -- plenty of golf immortals have blown gargantuan leads at Augusta. Im was one swing from the lead at the Masters.
But Im was leaking oil as well; he was fighting his swing. For three days he wasn’t just unflappable. He looked strong. Drives were deep and penetrating, and his short game was missile-command perfect. But in the crucible of the final group on Sunday at the Masters, he suddenly, inexplicably stated missing greens. And when he went over the green at the long par-3 sixth, Im created an opportunity for Johnson to seize control for good. Johnson didn't hestitate.
Augusta’s sixth is overshadowed by its back nine par-3 sisters, the treacherous 12th and the drama-prone 16th, but it’s no less a challenge. Miss the green and you’re facing either a difficult bunker shot, or a pitch over a hill where you can’t even see the cup. That’s what Im faced. So DJ dropped an 8-iron to seven feet for a two-shot swing.
The lead was three again, and Im never seriously threatened after that.
The three consecutive back-nine birdies were also sublime; Johnson laid up on both par 5s and, like Zach Johnson in 2007, and birdied them both. His little pitches into position for his third were so short, he -- almost comically -- looked as if he were bunting the golf ball.
Dustin Johnson, supposedly considered a sluggard by Mensa standards, played the smartest golf of his life. As the greatest golf writer of all time, Dan Jenkins used to say about the back nine at Augusta, “Driest ball wins.” Johnson was so far ahead, and so in control, he didn’t even have to go for it. Talk about a leisurely stroll!
That’s unlike him, because he won at Oakmont by going for it. You’ll recall at that Open there was a rules flap, a stupid one. An “are we going to penalize you for something or not?” bit of confusion where they actually played about five holes not knowing where Johnson’s score stood for sure. So Johnson told interviewers afterwards that he just went out and attacked the golf course. That’s right: He went for the jugular at Oakmont (of all places) and walked off with the trophy.
“I tried to birdie every hole,” he told me afterward. He didn’t even want to look at leaderboards.
But Sunday at Augusta was different. The New York Post’s Mark Cannizzaro wrote that it might be a softer, kinder, gentler Johnson, a Johnson, who like all of us, dreamed of winning the Masters, that prevailed yesterday. One who wept not for himself and his achievement, but out of respect. And here, perhaps, is the most welcome achievement of all: He did it two weeks removed from a positive COVID-19 test that sidelined him for a two-week quarantine in Las Vegas.
Yes, of course there were the soft November conditions that turned normally race-track fast Augusta National into a lawn darts competition. (Let’s see if 20 under wins next year.) Yes, there were no thrilling roars amidst the pines. And yes, split tees, a Thursday morning washout and only ten-and-a-half hours of daylight felt odd. But they gave out the same green jacket (this year in 42 long), they hold the same wonderful traditions sacred, and Johnson gets to come back in just five short months to defend (we hope). The Masters was a shot in the arm that we needed, pun definitely intended.
The tournament also showcased some excellent young talent that may be golf’s next great generation. Sungjae Im’s arrival is im-minent. He’s got all the shots, and this experience will help him next time he’s in contention down the stretch. And Cameron Smith became the first and only player in Masters history to card four rounds in the 60s. His 15-under-par score would have won every other Masters except five. This year was the 84th playing of this august event.
Meanwhile, Augusta was not quite so forgiving and welcoming to one of golf’s other new superstars. Bryson DeChambeau -- he of the grandiose claims and recently bulked-up frame -- threatened to bludgeon Augusta to death, but was never a factor.
“Par for me is 67,” the reigning U.S. Open champion boasted pridefully pre-tournament. How did he do? A T-34 finish that included a lost ball, several penalties, doubles and/or triples every day and another embarrassing exchange with a rules official.
“So you’re telling me if it’s a lost ball, it’s a penalty?” he asked the ref. Sounds like my Sunday golf buddies. He was right about one thing though: 20 under was in play.
And finally, Augusta National giveth and Augusta National taketh away, and on Sunday Augusta National brought one of its greatest challengers to his knees. Tiger Woods took a 10 on the par-3 12th hole. That tiny little grinning garden gnome of a golf hole just tweaked Tiger’s nose over and over and over. Woods hit balls into Rae’s Creek three different ways: off the tee, from the drop area, and out of a back bunker.
In the back bunker, his stance was so awkward, it looked like someone called “Right foot, red! Left foot, green!” in a game of Twister. He swung at the ball like a man swatting at a cloud of bees in a phone booth, and the ball sailed into Rae’s Creek for a third time.
A 10! The highest score Woods had taken on a par-3 in his entire professional major championship career before that was a six. Woods was so burned, he birdied five of the last six holes. He finished tied for 38th.
And so where we usually open our golf season with the Masters, this year we close it. The Masters is unquenchable human spirit at its best no matter who wins it, but it feels good to know that this year our champion – more importantly – defeated Coronavirus. It gives us all hope. And after all, that’s what the Masters is best at.