Planet Golf — 15 November 2020 by GW staff and news services
A record victory for DJ at the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. – All week it wasn’t just the Masters, it was the stripped-down acoustic version of the Masters. You could hear the biophany of bird life chirping, unseen golf carts motoring, the train whistles coming in on the breeze. The only other audio was the regular thwack of a golf shot and the hissing vapor trail of a ball flying through the air.

The clubs did almost all the talking. It was a Dustin Johnson kind of week. 

In a game obsessed with youth, Johnson, 36, is just coming into his prime, a reminder that great careers are revealed over decades, not social media hot takes. After carrying a four-shot lead over three players into Sunday, Johnson, whose languid strut and taciturn nature recall an Old West cowboy, started slowly but steadied himself to shoot 68 and win by five.

His 20-under total breaks the Masters record of 18, shared by Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth.

Sungjae Im and Cameron Smith shot 69 to tie for second at 15 under.

Johnson hugged his brother/caddie Austin on the 18th green, and Austin started crying first. They grew up an hour away, close enough to know all about Augusta National but not close enough to actually play it.

“Well, I proved that I can get it done on Sunday with the lead at a major, especially in tough conditions,” said Johnson, who was overcome with emotion and struggled to speak in a post-round interview with CBS’s Amanda Balionis. “… 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? For me, it definitely proved that I can do it.” 

The day featured only fleeting suspense. Im cut the lead to one after Johnson made back-to-back bogeys, but Johnson restored order at the par-3 sixth, converting a short birdie putt. Smith made things interesting with a front-nine 33, including wild birdies at Nos. 7 and 9, but Johnson was always going to have to come back to the chase pack, and instead went the other way.

There were polite claps amongst the 100 or so members – retired NFL greats Peyton Manning and Lynn Swan among them – plus wives and girlfriends and others following the final group. Absent the context you might have thought it was the club championship.

By the time Smith, marching up the 15th fairway, looked back and saw that it was Johnson who was close to the pin on the 14th green, it was all but over. Smith frowned and looked down at the grass, Johnson made the six-foot putt, and the lead was five strokes with four holes remaining.

This rain-delayed, pandemic-delayed Masters was essentially over. Was Johnson’s arrival on this stage, the green jacket ceremony in Butler Cabin, also delayed? Not really. Before Woods, it was widely accepted that golfers peaked in their 30s. By that metric, Johnson is right on time.

This is what he had in mind all those years ago when he honed his game at Weed Hill driving range in Columbia, South Carolina, just an hour or so from Augusta National. Johnson knew of the special tournament just down the road, even if he never had the connections to actually play here until he qualified for his first Masters in 2009. 

“Obviously growing up in Columbia, in high school, I hit a lot of golf balls at Weed Hill,” he said in a rare reflective moment. “So definitely remember hitting up there in the dark. They had lights on the range, and most nights I would shut the lights off when I was leaving.”

Once he was snug in his new 42 long green jacket, he revealed what had kept him going.

“Yeah, growing up, that was all it was, as a kid, you dream of playing in the Masters, and dream about putting on a green jacket,” he said. “Still kind of think it’s a dream, but hopefully, it’s not.” 

Johnson was twice a first-team All American at Coastal Carolina, where he won seven times, and his immediate success on TOUR was not unexpected. He won the 2008 Turning Stone Resort Championship and kept winning each year like clockwork from there. He had major championship type game, but the majors eluded him, sometimes gruesomely.

All anyone wanted to talk about at Augusta was his 0-for-4 record closing them out when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead – the gum on his shoe since the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, when he lost his three-shot lead with a second-hole triple bogey, shot 82, and finished T8.

He almost atoned for his mistake at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits two months later, but unintentionally grounded his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole. The ensuing two-stroke penalty kept him out of a playoff with Bubba Watson and eventual champion Martin Kaymer.

Johnson had one hand on the trophy at two other U.S. Opens, but couldn’t keep the lead there, either. A fellow player, of all things, mentioned these lapses when Johnson took the lead into the final round of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in August, and it happened again. The snakebit leader shot a solid 68 only to lose to 23-year-old Collin Morikawa (64) by two.

But good luck asking Johnson to get worked up about any of this.

“That stuff doesn’t bother me,” he has said more than once. 

He just keeps on giving himself chances. The Masters marked the fifth time in his last seven TOUR starts that Johnson had held the 54-hole lead/co-lead, a run in which he’d already won THE NORTHERN TRUST and TOUR Championship to take the FedExCup.

He also lost a wild head-to-head showdown with Jon Rahm at the BMW Championship.

“I think I’ve got a good game plan,” Johnson said from the stately, wood-paneled interview room in Augusta’s cavernous press building Saturday night. “I’m not going to change it.”

And he hasn’t. Instead of getting into a war of words over his major letdowns, the Johnson way has been to answer with blistered drives, laser-like approaches, and an improved putting stroke built with input from his caddie/brother Austin, and a lesson from World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman. And now he’s gone and converted a 54-hole lead at the major players covet most just three months after his fitness for doing so was questioned more publicly than ever.

Norman, of course, never did win here. He bled away a six-shot advantage and more to lose to Nick Faldo in ’96. Rory McIlroy collapsed on the back nine and carded a final-round 80 in 2011, and Jordan Spieth quadruple-bogeyed the 12th hole to lose in 2016. Both lost four-shot leads.

There are no guarantees at Augusta, or anywhere. At the 2017 World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions, Johnson shot 77 and became the second player in TOUR history to lose a six-shot 54-hole lead. He won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in his next start, five weeks later. Johnson is like the metal man in “Terminator 2” who keeps moving ever forward even as he keeps getting holes blown through him. He forgets quickly. He’s a fast healer.

This was Johnson’s second major (2016 U.S. Open) and 24th TOUR win. He pulls even with Woods for most consecutive seasons with a win to start a career with 14, and moves from 17th to first in the FedExCup, which is where he ended last season. We are seeing the peak years of perhaps the most gifted golfer of his generation; Johnson’s best may be better than anyone else’s.

The Weed Hill driving range closed in 2015, sold for development. But Bobby Weed, who built it when he was in high school to work on his own game, has gone on to a successful golf course design business. Johnson, meanwhile, glides and strides ever forward into the golf history books.

His clubs have never spoken so loudly.

Third Round

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Dustin Johnson began his assault on Augusta National with a 5-iron for a tap-in eagle, and he never relented until he matched the 54-hole record at the Masters and built a four-shot lead to put himself in prime position for another major.

Johnson has been in this position before, and he plans to lean on his experience.

Not from the 82 he shot at Pebble Beach in the 2010 U.S. Open. Not the three-putt from 12 feet on a bumpy 18th green that cost him at Chambers Bay. Not even the one-shot lead he lost three months ago at Harding Park. They were among four times he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead in a major without converting.

He’s talking about the last three days at Augusta National. It’s been a masterful performance.

“If I can play like I did today, I think it will break that streak,” Johnson said Saturday. “Tomorrow, it’s just 18 holes of golf. I need to go out and play solid. I feel like I’m swinging really well. If I can just continue to give myself a lot of looks at birdie, I think I’ll have a good day.”

A third round that began with 10 players separated by one shot turned into a one-man show.

The No. 1 player in the world looked every bit the part with a 7-under 65, pulling away with the eagle and two birdies in the opening four holes, nearly holing a wedge from the seventh fairway, handling the par 5s on the back nine with two-putt birdies and going the last 30 holes without a bogey.

He was at 16-under 200, matching the 54-hole record Jordan Spieth set in 2015 when he won the Masters by four shots over Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose.

The cast of challengers are not nearly as experienced.

Two of them are Masters rookies. Sungjae Im, the supreme ball-striker from South Korea who won his first PGA Tour title two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down golf in the spring, birdied the last hole for 68. Abraham Ancer of Mexico saved par on the 18th for a 69.

Joining them at 12-under 204 was Cameron Smith of Australia, who had 12 straight pars before running off three straight birdies and then closing with three scrambling pars for a 69.

“He’s been there before multiple times, and No. 1 in the world,” Ancer said. “I think he’s right where he wants to be. We know that we have to go low, and that’s it. It’s very simple. If DJ goes out there and plays really solid like today, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to catch him. Whatever has to be done out there has to be pretty special.”

Still, there is enormous pressure on Johnson because of his history. He has not converted two 54-hole leads, nor has he won at two majors where he shared the 54-hole lead. His only major was the 2016 U.S. Open when he rallied from four shots behind at Oakmont.

“Anyone with a four-shot lead is expected to win,” Smith said. “There’s going to be plenty of boys firing tomorrow.”

Attacking flags is what Augusta National has allowed in November, with rain earlier in the week and warm, calm conditions that have kept the turf soft and vulnerable.

Johnson, who had to sit out two tournaments after testing positive for the coronavirus a month ago, still came into the Masters having won twice, finishing runner-up three times and tying for sixth in the U.S. Open.

“I’m very comfortable with having the lead going into tomorrow. I’ve been in this situation a lot of times,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. It’s still going to be a tough day. I’m going to have to play well if I want to get it done.”

Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm had their chances only to make untimely mistakes. Rahm nearly topped his second shot on the par-5 eighth, which he attributed to mud on his golf ball, and hit his next one off a tree and into the bushes on his way to a double bogey.

Thomas sailed his second shot over the 15th green and into the water, making bogey on a par 5 where he was hoping to make up ground. Both bogeyed the 18th hole. Thomas shot 71, Rahm had a 72.

Asked to describe his day, Rahm didn’t mince words.

“Seriously? How would I describe? Pretty awful,” he said.

Starting times for the final round have been moved up to finish by 3 p.m. so CBS can honor its NFL contract, and it will be threesomes off both tees. And just like all week, and all year, there will be no roars to add to the pressure.

“Unfortunately for all of us chasing DJ is there’s no fans or nothing to make that moment even harder, to have the buzz, to have the adrenaline, to have a little bit more pressure put on him that won’t be there this year,” Thomas said.

Defending champion Tiger Woods will stick around Sunday to present the green jacket, and he’ll have to leave his at Augusta National until he returns.

Woods was 4 under through 10 holes to start the Masters, and he picked up only one more shot over the next 44 holes. He finished off a 71 in the second round Saturday morning, had a 72 in the third round and was 11 shots behind.

U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau was more dizzy than sore. He felt so odd on Thursday night that he had another COVID-19 test to be sure — it came back negative — and the betting favorite of this Masters was in the middle of the pack, 13 shots behind.

The scoring has been low all week. The 36-hole cut Saturday morning was at even-par 144, the lowest in Masters history, another update to the club’s record book.

Still in front of Johnson is a chance to set the 72-hole record. All he cares about is a green jacket, and given his past experience, he knows better than to look ahead.

Second Round

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Justin Thomas vividly remembers his first round at Augusta National.

He recalls what else was happening in his golfing life, that he was a freshman at Alabama, and that he played with Jeff Knox, the best golfer amongst Augusta National members. Rounding out the foursome: Thomas’ Alabama teammates Lee Knox (Jeff’s son) and Bobby Wyatt. 

“It was straight after I think our first event in Puerto Rico, and we were so excited,” said Thomas, who shot a second-round 69 to reach 9 under par, tied atop the Masters leaderboard with Dustin Johnson (70), Abraham Ancer (67) and Cameron Smith (68). “… It felt like a tournament round you’re getting ready for, you’re nervous on the first tee. We had a great day.” 

Johnson (world No. 1) and Thomas (world No. 3) will never be mistaken for one another, even if their first names are separated by only one letter. But they have this in common: Each has one major to his name, and each initially struggled to find his A game for the Masters.

That’s not uncommon; learning the nuances of the course is a rite of passage for almost everyone not named Fuzzy Zoeller, who remains the only first-timer to win (1979).

“I think it’s taken me a little bit to get over, not – I guess maybe the fear of Augusta National,” said Thomas, whose T12 finish last year was the first he’d begun to play to his potential. “… I kind of go back to that (first) round, like, dude, remember you made six birdies when you were a freshman in college. I would hope you’d be able to handle it your fifth appearance now.”

While this weekend will present a different kind of nerves for Thomas, there may be similarities to his first time here. It was February 2012 – not far from November on the golf calendar – and it was wet and scoreable, and Thomas really, really wanted to play well.

In the end he threw in some mistakes with his six birdies and shot even. He was low man in the group and was especially excited to beat Knox, whom he calls Mr. Jeff, because “he tears this place up.”

Still, that first flush of success didn’t immediately translate once he’d earned a coveted Masters invite. He scheduled practice rounds with players like Tiger Woods and Fred Couples, soaking up as much knowledge as possible, but finished T39 as a rookie in 2016, then T22 and T17 the next two years. He was improving, but not exactly by leaps and bounds.

Today, Thomas says he just needed to learn where to miss, where to be aggressive, and that he didn’t need to do anything superhuman. He also had to shed that fear factor.  

His Ryder and Presidents Cup teammate Johnson got off to an even slower start here. He was T30 in his rookie year in 2009, then got worse with a pair of T38s in 2010 and 2011. Not until Johnson committed to a new level of precision with his wedges, and improved his putting, did he begin to figure out how to play what is often referred to as a second-shot course.

Today, the world No. 1, expects to contend for the green jacket. His T2 finish last year, one behind Tiger Woods, was one of four top-10 finishes in the last five years. He might have had another top-10 in 2017 but slipped on some stairs and hurt himself, leading to a WD.

Many experts had pegged Johnson as the clear pre-tournament favorite that year. He had just won three times on TOUR, including two WGCs, and climbed to No. 1 in the world. In that respect what’s happening this week, or what could happen, has been a long time coming.

As with the roughly half the field that didn’t finish the first round Thursday, Johnson began his Friday early, with a 4:05 wakeup call. Then it was straight back out to the back nine. He hasn’t been great on the greens, with 32 putts in the second round, and bogeyed the par-5 15th. But otherwise, he said, he’s been mostly pleased, especially with his two 2s at the testy 12th hole.

“It’s been a long day,” he said, when asked to name his best shot Friday. “I mean, both the shots I hit on 12 today, I like. I made birdie both times. So I take that any day of the week.”

Now the top two Americans are tied at the top. They’ll take that any day of the week, too. 


AUGUSTA, Ga. — No spectators, no roars.

Paul Casey still had no problem finding enough energy from the sheer mystique of the Masters on Thursday in an opening round that was delayed seven months by a pandemic and then nearly three hours by thunderstorms.

It carried him to a 7-under 65, matching his lowest score at Augusta National and giving him a two-shot lead among those fortunate enough to get in 18 holes before it was too dark to continue.

“So many people like myself are just excited to play this,” Casey said. “This is a treat. It always has been and always will be a real treat.”

The autumn Masters brought a different course, for sure, some of that courtesy of the weather.

The downpour that began about 30 minutes after Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit their ceremonial tee shots, coupled with a November tournament with some Bermuda grass that still hasn’t gone dormant, left Augusta National soft and vulnerable to low scores and far less punishment.

Defending champion Tiger Woods even got into the act. A notorious slow starter despite his five green jackets, he played his first bogey-free round at any major in 11 years and matched his low start at the Masters with a 68.

“I put a lot of it together today,” Woods said, his only regret not making a few more putts. He finished with eight pars.

The biggest crowd — about 100 people in this case — was two groups ahead of Woods watching Bryson DeChambeau smash shots into trees and one shot into the azaleas bushes behind the 13th green. He was lucky to find it because his provisional shot went into the creek. He still made double bogey, though he managed to scratch out a 70. (Leaderboard).

So much action, typical of the Masters, and so little volume.

And it was worth the wait caused by COVID-19.

“I was vocal earlier in the year about not enjoying golf in a pandemic,” Casey said. “I didn’t know how the fan-less experience would be and so far, I’ve not enjoyed it. I’ve had nothing, or very little, to draw on from being out playing tournament golf. The Masters, though, this week it still has a buzz to it. There’s an energy and a little bit of vibe.

“Yes, it’s clearly a lot less than what we’re used to. But there’s something about this place. I felt excited to be here.”

The excitement for Casey began on the fearsome 10th hole when he hit his approach to a front pin about 5 feet away for birdie. He had eagle chances on both par 5s on the back nine and settled for birdies. He took on a left pin at the par-5 second with a 6-iron and watched the ball plop 6 feet away for eagle.

“You can’t hit that shot in April,” he said. “It pitched and stopped instantly, and that shot in April would have one-hopped over into the patrons.”

There was a lot to be excited about on several scorecards.

Webb Simpson played a tidy round, making eagle on No. 2 after the turn and finishing with seven pars for a 67. He was joined by Xander Schauffele, a runner-up to Woods last year, who had seven birdies in his round of 67.

“You’re going at pins that you wouldn’t really feel that comfortable with,” Schauffele said. “There’s so many spots where your ball will stay. It was just really strange.”

Lee Westwood wasn’t sure he would ever make it back to the Masters, earning a ticket back with his tie for fourth in the British Open last summer. The best player without a major showed he still has some life at age 47. He shot 31 on the front and limited the damage on the back for a 68, joining the group that included Woods, former Masters champion Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama and Louis Oosthuizen.

Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player, was among those who played in the afternoon and had to return Friday morning to finish. He opened with an eagle on No. 2 and was 3 under at the turn. Justin Thomas started with three straight birdies and was at 5 under through 10 holes.

Rory McIlroy also played in the afternoon, made bogey on his first hole and was struggling to make birdies. He was even par at the turn, which felt worse on a day like this.

The delay was the last thing the Masters needed with limited daylight hours leading to the two-tee start. Every minute counts, and it was doubtful 36 holes could be completed by Friday.

The loudest cheer — applause, certainly not a roar — came for Nicklaus and Player hitting tee shots so early that they couldn’t see where they landed. Five groups got through one hole before the siren sounded to stop play for 2 hours, 45 minutes. And then players began to light up the course as the clouds moved to the east and those famous shadows from Georgia pines stretched across the fairways.

It looked just the Masters, minus the spring blooms, even if it didn’t sound like one.

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