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Dustin Johnson cruises to historic Masters victory

Jay Busbee
·9-min read

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Dustin Johnson finally has a green jacket, and a Masters record to go with it.

The 36-year-old who has been close before at Augusta was never really threatened Sunday, winning the seven-month-delayed Masters by five strokes over Cameron Smith and Sungjae IM and, in the process, posting the lowest 72-hole score in tournament history. Johnson’s 20-under bested the previous record of 18-under held by Tiger Woods and Jordan Speith.

The record comes with a caveat — a November Augusta National is more forgiving than an April one, evident by the fact that Smith’s and IM’s 15-under is the lowest score ever by a non-winner — but it is, nonetheless, now the lowest four-round total in the history of the tournament.

“To have the record at 20 under is a great honor and ... I don’t even know what to say,” Johnson said just before Tiger Woods slipped on his green jacket.

To this point, Johnson’s career has been full of what ifs, from the questionable (the penalty he incurred for grounding his club in a is-it-a-bunker on the final hole of the 2010 PGA Championship) to the bizarre (falling down a flight of stairs and injuring his back the night before the 2017 Masters, a tournament where he was the heavy favorite) to the close but no cigar (posting runner-ups in ever single major).

Despite all the talent and the No. 1 world ranking, he arrived at Augusta with just a single major victory on his resume, and even that one came with a bit of drama. He was assessed a stroke penalty after his 2016 U.S. Open win, holding onto the victory only because he’d already sprinted away from the field.

Johnson is as cool, calm and collected as any player in the world, yet drama seemingly always somehow found him.

Not Sunday at Augusta.

Dustin Johnson follows his tee shot on the eighth hole during the final round of the Masters golf tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Dustin Johnson follows his tee shot on the eighth hole during the final round of the Masters golf tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

A different Masters

This year’s Masters was originally scheduled to tee off four weeks and one day after a COVID-19 outbreak halted a Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game. Two days after the NBA halted all operations, Augusta National followed suit, postponing the Masters and, eventually, canceling the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and Drive, Chip & Putt finals for 2020.

On the Monday of what should have been Masters Week, Augusta National announced the tournament would be held during the second week of November. For a moment, there was hope. November was forever away, sure, but … an autumn Masters! Right in the middle of football season! And surely we’d have this virus under control by then and patrons could return to Augusta!

Well, two out of three happened. In mid-August, Augusta National decided to go forward without patrons, a heartbreak for those who had won badges through sports’ most celebrated lottery. The club noted, somewhat ominously, that patrons could return “hopefully in April 2021.”

Without patrons, without grandstands, without ropes, Augusta National has a vastly different feel. The silence is tangible. Sounds travel farther. Conversations aren’t private. You can spot individuals rather than an indistinct mass. The tweets of birds and the hum of drones are the only persistent sounds on the course.

“It's crazy to see and realize the little things we can hear from so far away,” Jon Rahm said Saturday morning. “I mean, somebody could be digging into a bag of chips 150 yards away, and sometimes you can hear it, which is crazy.”

The tournament began with that most 2020 of omens: four days of forecast rain, starting with an apocalyptic thunderstorm Thursday morning. Augusta National was already fighting Mother Nature — one of the few forces it can’t control, one way or another — because early darkness every afternoon meant three-man groupings and split-tee starts every day. A Thursday washout could affect the entire tournament.

Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player teed off in the predawn twilight anyway, striping their ceremonial drives into the fog to get the tournament started. And then the rains came, shutting down the tournament for three hours.

Augusta National can handle harsh weather more easily than virtually any course on earth; a network of SubAir piping below the ground and tree-restraining wires above it keep the course tournament-ready even after a three-hour monsoon. But the young ryegrass and soft greens still rolled over for the world’s best.

Paul Casey set the pace with a Thursday -7, a mark that Dylan Frittelli and Johnson would later match by the time they finished Friday. Tiger Woods, the defending champion, started the repeat talk with a neat little -4.

Matter of fact, about the only players who didn’t have a great Thursday were two from whom we expected greatness: Rory McIlroy, because he’s been great everywhere else, and Bryson DeChambeau, who never tires of telling us how great he plans to be.

McIlroy, as is his style at Augusta, stumbled right out of the gate with a 75. Aside from a 69 in 2018, he hasn’t shot below 70 in the first round of a Masters since 2011 … the year he let the green jacket slip out of his grasp. A 66 and a 67 in the second and third rounds — and a stellar run on Sunday morning — couldn’t make up for his first-round misfires, and he once again left Augusta empty-handed.

“I honestly have been playing so good coming in here,” McIlroy said, “and then I go into the first round and I shoot 75, and I'm like, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ ”

The field whittles down to one

No one dominated the pre-Masters coverage quite like DeChambeau, who bulldogged his way into Augusta carrying a U.S. Open trophy and an ego that stretches every bit as far as his prodigious 400-yard drives. He made no secret of his plans to carve up Augusta National and reassemble it to his own liking, bold talk for a guy who’s played in exactly three Masters and never finished higher than T21.

“I’m looking at it as a par-67 for me,” DeChambeau told Golf Channel, “because I can reach all the par-5s in two, no problem.”

Augusta National heard all that talk and decided to reply. On his fourth hole of the tournament, the 13th, he overcooked a shot out of the trees into what, in April, would have been azalea blooms. On the third tee in the second round, he smoked a driver into the second cut, somehow losing the ball in the uncharacteristically lush grass. The result: two 7s, and a scorecard that left his chances of making the cut in doubt until the final minutes of the second round, which finished up on Saturday morning.

Not long afterward on Saturday morning — with ESPN’s “College GameDay” set up on the Par 3 course, and almost no one watching out on the fairways — Johnson began to run away with the tournament. From holes 2-4, he went eagle-birdie-birdie to seize control of the leaderboard, and then ambled his way to another three birdies en route to his second bogey-free round of the tournament. No one in Masters history had ever shot 65 or below twice in a tournament, and yet Johnson had done just that.

An uncharacteristically early Sunday morning start — for all the Masters’ cultural sway, it still must give way to the Gods of NFL football — meant that Johnson, in the final grouping, was on the course at 9:39 Sunday morning with a four-stroke lead. He was heading out to a gettable Augusta — Cameron Champ birdied his first three holes of the day, a few groupings ahead, and red numbers were all over the “Today” column of the leaderboard. Cam Smith, one group ahead, and Sungjae Im, alongside Johnson, cut the lead in half in just three holes.

This is Dustin Johnson, the man who’s blown five Sunday leads in a major, four of them solo. You didn’t think it was going to come easy, did you?

Everything that had served Johnson so well in the first three rounds — on-point driver, strategic approach, smooth putting — vanished in the opening holes of the final round. He averaged 2-under through the first five holes in the first three rounds, but went 1-over on Sunday, allowing Im to draw within a single stroke.

If he was rattled, he didn’t show it. He never does. After that rocky opening stretch, Johnson stepped up to the sixth looking about as out-of-sorts as a man brushing his teeth. He calmly dropped his tee shot off the cliffside tee box down to within seven feet of the pin. Then he touched his right elbow, settled in, and tapped in for birdie. Im, playing in his first Masters, two-jacked from four feet for a bogey, and the lead was two again.

Elsewhere on the course, Woods was doing very un-Tiger-like things over in Amen Corner:

Post posting the 10, he promptly birdied five of his final six holes, and will have that to build on come April when everyone returns to Augusta.

Meanwhile, McIlroy’s run would have gotten the gallery cheering loud enough to intimidate the leaders. He made the turn at three-under on the day, 11-under on the week. But once again, the 10th hole victimized McIlroy; his bogey left him seven strokes behind Johnson and out of reach.

Im and Smith held steady to keep a modicum of pressure on Johnson. In fact, Smith became the first player in Masters history to post four sub-70 rounds.

And yet it wasn’t enough. Not even close.

After those back-to-back bogies early on, Johnson was flawless, carding five birdies, including one on the 14th that put him in record territory and ahead by five strokes.

From there, it was a leisurely stroll through 18 and into the arms of a 42-long green jacket.

_____

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@gmail.com.

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