ORLANDO, FL – Heading into this year’s Masters Tournament, much of the talk was about how one among the PGA Tour’s brigade of long hitters was going to turn famed Augusta National Golf Club into his own pitch-and-putt layout – albeit a very exclusive and exquisitely maintained short course. About how 500-yard, par-fives would be turned into driver-and-short-iron holes.
Well, one did win the 84th edition of this major on Sunday, just not the one that received most of the pre-tournament attention. Bryson DeChambeau, with his prodigious drives, came into the event with much of the fanfare. But it was Dustin Johnson, who also can crank it out pretty far, who came away with the green jacket.
He did so in record fashion, too. Johnson shot a 2-under-par 68 during Sunday’s final round to finish at 268, two strokes lower than the tournament’s 72-hole record shared by Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth.
Dustin’s Sunday round also was his 11th consecutive under par at Augusta, breaking another of Tiger’s records; and Johnson established new Masters’ records by making just four bogeys and missing only 12 greens over the four days. It was a “Masters-ful” performance.
Johnson’s five-stroke victory is the largest at a Masters since Tiger’s 12-shot rout in 1997. He is the 12th Masters champion to have led or shared the lead in all four rounds. In securing his second major (he won the 2016 U.S. Open) and 24th career PGA Tour win, Dustin strengthened his hold on the top spot in the world rankings.
It also continued his hot streak. In his last seven tournaments, including the Masters, Johnson has won three times and finished second three times.
‘Vindication is Mine’
This victory, though, was not about setting records, or world rankings, or winning
streaks. It was about vindication – that Johnson can hold a lead in a major – and about achieving a dream.
There have been whispers over the years wondering whether Johnson can close out a major. In his lone title, that U.S. Open, he came from behind to win. Entering Sunday, the 36-year-old Johnson had never successfully held a third-round lead in a major. Four times he’d led or shared the lead after 54 holes, and four times he’d lost. Some of it was due to Johnson’s poor play and some was simply bad luck. He shot an 82 in the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open. Later that same year he grounded a club in a waste area that he thought was part of the fairway; the resulting penalty kept him out of a playoff. In the 2015 U.S. Open he three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole to lose by one shot. Then, in this year’s PGA Championship, Johnson fell
victim to Collin Morikawa’s incredible, record final round.
Plus, in 2017, Johnson was the No. 1-ranked player in the world, coming off three consecutive victories entering the Masters, and a heavy pre-tournament favorite. But, right before the Masters, he injured his back in a nasty tumble on the stairs at his rental home and was forced to withdraw.
Yes, there have been questions about whether the player known as “DJ” can play with the lead in a major. Questions about why such a superbly talented player -- who had won almost two dozen PGA tournaments and more than $68 million in his career, and who can regularly launch 320-yard drives with his long, fluid and seemingly effortless swing -- has just a U.S. Open title to his name. “Why doesn’t he win more?” a lot of people have asked.
Those whispers and questions started again Sunday when Johnson suffered a shaky start. His drive on the first hole found a bunker; he hit a chip shot on the par-five, second hole into a bunker. He bogeyed the third and fourth holes, again finding a bunker on the latter hole.
Suddenly, his four-shot lead was down to one by the sixth hole, and stood at just two shots entering the treacherous Amen Corner on the back nine. “Here we go again” was a thought that crossed the minds of more than a few people. But, this time, Johnson reeled off three consecutive birdies; and with a five-stroke lead standing on the 18th tee, coasted home with the win.
For the laid-back Johnson, a subtle fist bump counts as an excessive display of exuberance. He seems to play with a “What, me worry?” casualness, whether he’s in the middle of the pack at a regular PGA Tour event, or challenging for the lead in a major. He is the epitome of cool on the course.
‘Nervous All Day’
But, on this Sunday, he was like a duck on water: appearing calm on the surface, but paddling like crazy underneath. “I was nervous all day. I could feel it,” Johnson admitted. “There were doubts in my mind, just because I had been there. I’m in this position a lot of times. Like, ‘When am I going to have the lead and finish off the golf tournament, or finish off a major.
“I’m just very proud of the way I handled myself and the way I finished off the golf tournament. It definitely proved that I can do it.”
And, silenced his critics and those whispers along the way.
What Johnson, who was born and grew up in Columbia, SC, about 75 miles from Augusta, did was achieve a long-held goal. “Growing up so close to here, it’s always been a tournament that since I’ve been on Tour, since I played my first Masters, it’s been the tournament I wanted to win most,” he said in his post-tournament press conference.
“As a kid, you’re dreaming about winning the Masters, having Tiger put the green jacket on you… What a great feeling it is. I couldn’t be more excited.”
The guy who plays with the proverbial ice water in his veins misted up a little during his post-victory interviews. Winning apparently meant more to Johnson than many might have suspected. Who could blame him. A demon vanquished and a childhood dream realized is quite a day.
‘A Masters Like No Other’
Delayed 217 days because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, this was the first Masters ever played in November. “A tradition like no other,” as the tournament bills itself, promised to be “A Masters like no other.” It lived up to that billing, in sometimes-bizarre ways.
There was no Par 3 Contest, the fun pre-tournament event on Augusta’s short course. Players went off on both the first and 10th tees during the first, second and final rounds. The seemingly ageless Bernhard Langer became the oldest player, at 63 years and two months, to make the 36-hole cut, finishing at a quite respectable 3-under-par 285.
The biggest difference, though, was that fans were unable to attend because of mandated health and safety protocols due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ordinarily, about 40,000 fans (or “patrons” as the Lords of Augusta insist they be called) would be on the course each of the four days. It is considered the toughest ticket in sports to get. But, because of the pandemic, only club members and their spouses, staff, a limited number of journalists, players and caddies, and two guests per player were allowed to attend. The atmosphere was more like a club championship than a major.
Instead of cheers from thousands of patrons echoing through the tall Georgia pines, there was the hum of the course’s SubAir system (an underground system that controls the temperature and moisture of the greens and numerous fairway landing areas), and the sound of drones flying overhead, capturing images for CBS Sports.
Many players, some freely acknowledging that they feed off of the fans’ reactions, lamented the absence of patrons. The roars from spectators can help provide a spark for a charging player; or it can increase the pressure, making a player grip the club a little tighter and every putt a little more difficult.
“For all of us chasing DJ,” Justin Thomas said after the third round, “there’s no fans or nothing to make that moment even harder, to have the buzz, to have the adrenaline, to have a little more pressure put on him; that won’t be there this year.”
Two of the more bizarre moments in this year’s Masters involved Tiger and DeChambeau.
Tiger recorded a 10 on the 12th hole in Sunday’s final round, his worst score ever in 25 years at the Masters and in his Tour career, putting three shots in Rae’s Creek that guards the front of the green. Woods did, however, rally to birdie five of his last six holes and finish the tournament at one-under-par.
DeChambeau, ranked No. 1 on Tour in driving distance (Johnson is third), came into the tournament as the betting favorite. But his plan to overpower Augusta National, much as he did Winged Foot in winning the U.S. Open a couple months ago, never materialized, beset by some health problems, bad shots and bad breaks. He finished tied for 34th, at two-under-par.
One shot in particular surely will go down among the most unusual in Masters lore.
Coming off a birdie, which included a 380-yard drive, on the second hole during the second round, DeChambeau tried to create some momentum by driving the 350-yard, third hole. However, he pulled the shot a little left and it landed in the “second cut”, about 10 yards off the fairway, and perhaps 50 yards or so short of the green.
A Drive Too Far
Here, Bryson paid the price for a lack of patrons. Ordinarily, there would have been people standing near where the shot landed. Instead, a group of about 10 people (players, caddies, spotters, and rules officials) looked unsuccessfully for DeChambeau’s ball. It didn’t go out of bounds, and didn’t become lost in some bushes; it landed just off the fairway, in what constitutes as rough at Augusta. Yet, after three minutes of searching (the time allowed by the Rules of Golf) the ball wasn’t found. So, DeChambeau had to go back, re-tee a ball and take a one-shot penalty. He wound up with a triple-bogey seven on the hole.
It was similar to what happened in the final round of this year’s U.S. Open to Harris English, who lost his drive in the rough on the first hole. Anybody who’s played golf can relate to the anguish felt by English and DeChambeau, linked by the same question: How does one lose a ball out in the open?
Oddly enough, a spotter did find Bryson’s ball, and handed it to him on the fourth tee. Unfortunately, too late to help DeChambeau.
This year’s Masters had a different feel: the silence, lack of patrons, the cooler weather, and the different colors of foliage on a course that was once a nursery.
The dazzling white and pink azaleas and dogwoods seen around Augusta National during the tournament’s traditional April date were replaced by the more muted colors of autumn foliage. But that’s OK with Johnson. He has the color he wanted most – a green jacket.
On his way to signing and turning in his scorecard following Sunday’s final round, Johnson ran into two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson. “I always dreamed of having one of those (green jackets, which Watson was wearing),” Johnson said. “Now I got one.”
And, just a little more than 140 days from now, on April 9, he’ll try to make it two.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.