World’s No. 1 player, who takes a 4-stroke lead into the final round, should wear something that goes with a green jacket
The Dustin Johnson Masters will conclude Sunday.
The forecast calls for a little more warmth, a few more clouds and a lot more Dustin Johnson.
It was all Johnson, all the time Saturday at Augusta National. The day began as potentially one of the great Masters shootouts in recent memory, what with the top three players in the world (Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, respectively) part of a five-way tie at the top.
Did someone say great shootout? There was a nine-way tie for the lead at one point early in the third round. A nine-way tie? What was this, Bingo Night at the Elks Club?
Then Johnson ended the suspense the way Usain Bolt would end a 100-meter race against a junior-high wrestling team: like a rapidly rushing son of Mercury.
After a par at the opening hole, Johnson went eagle-birdie-birdie and “Bolted” (sorry for that) into a commanding lead. A tap-in birdie at the seventh helped him make the turn in 31. He two-putted for birdies on the back nine’s par-5 holes and cruised to a 65. It was bogey-free, stress-free and seemingly effort-free (scores).
If you think this feels a lot like that week in August when Johnson shot 30 under par to win a FedEx Cup event in Boston, you’re excused.
This Masters is Johnson’s to win or lose. He has a four-shot lead over Cameron Smith, Abraham Ancer and Sungjae Im. They’re very good players who showed Saturday’s international viewing audience that they’re legitimate contenders, even if many in that audience hadn’t heard of any of the three. None has been in the unique crucible that is Augusta National’s back nine on Sunday, however (tee times).
What happened to Nos. 2 and 3 in the world, the guys who were supposed to help give birth to a New Big Three this weekend? Good question.
Rahm flamed out at the eighth hole when he hit a worm-burner from the fairway into the trees well short and left of the green. He said later that it was a mudball. Maybe he meant paintball, because his attempt to punch a low shot between the trees toward the green hit a pine tree right between the eyes and caromed into the shrubbery, from where Rahm turned a birdie hole into a double bogey.
Rahm shot 72 and is seven strokes behind Johnson. “How would I describe it? Pretty awful,” Rahm said. “The course was there for the scoring, and I couldn’t take advantage of anything.”
Thomas made a series of inexplicable mistakes on the back nine. The worst was when he over-drew a 5-iron into the par-5 15th green. The ball flew too far, caromed off the back bank and careened into the pond adjacent to the 16th hole.
“Disappointing about wraps it up,” Thomas said of his 71 that left him in sixth, six behind Johnson. “I know one thing is, I can’t make four bogeys on the back nine if I expect to win this golf tournament.”
If Johnson continues playing the way he did during the first three days, it won’t matter what Thomas or anyone does.
Only five 65s have been posted all week, and Johnson has two of them. The latest wasn’t a round in which he had an out-of-body putting experience, either. He made a 38-footer for birdie at the par-3 fourth hole, yes. The next-longest putt was from 8 feet.
Johnson took the old U.S. Open game plan – fairways and greens – to a new level. He hit every fairway and 16 of 18 greens. He missed the 12th green on a technicality. His ball was barely an inch into the back fringe. The only real miss was at 18, where he flared an approach shot past the right bunker on a hillside that was mowed as fairway.
There, he played a shot that might’ve been more impressive than his array of 320-yard-carry drives. Johnson was short-sided, so he pulled out a putter, struck it through the longer grass, through the fringe and onto the green. The ball trickled 5 feet past the pin, and he made the putt to save par. It was not nearly as easy as it sounds.
Naturally, he didn’t think the 18th was a big deal.
“It was downhill the whole way,” Johnson said. “I knew if I could get it over the hill short of the green, it was going to roll down pretty close to the hole. I made a pretty good 4 there.”
Just like he made a pretty good 3 at No. 2, where his iron shot from 222 yards (after another ho-hum 360-yard drive) nearly dunked into the cup for a deuce and left him a 2-footer for eagle.
Johnson is whom a select handful of players must chase down on an Augusta National course where the greens are firming and quickening. The pursuers will have to do it without their biggest weapon: the gallery roars that leaders hear.
There are only a handful of spectators this week – family members, a few Augusta National members and their guests. Bernhard Langer said he had “12 and a half” fans in his gallery Saturday.
“Unfortunately for all of us chasing D.J., there are no fans to have the buzz, to have the adrenaline, to put a little bit more pressure on him,” Thomas said. “So, it’s going to take something pretty special for me to have a chance tomorrow.”
Rory McIlroy, who shot a 67 to get to 8 under par and languish eight shots off the lead, said, “Being a realist here, I just need to go out and shoot a good one. But I have zero thoughts about winning this tournament right now.”
How far back is too far back? Dylan Frittelli is five back, Thomas is six and Sebastian Munoz, Patrick Reed and Rahm are seven back.
A cynic might suggest that even Mexico’s Ancer, Australia’s Smith and South Korea’s Im are too far back, but golf is seldom that predictable. Johnson has a history of spitting the bit when he has the 54-hole lead in majors. He is 0 for 4. He led the PGA Championship in August by one after 54 holes but got trampled by Collin Morikawa’s exceptional final round.
When Johnson won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2016, Ireland’s Shane Lowry led by two strokes after 54 holes.
Though Augusta National is playing far easier than usual, it’s still dangerous. Stuff happens there.
England’s Tommy Fleetwood is tied for 10th at 8 under. He was told by a media member that with the exception of Johnson, he was still in the mix.
“Well, unfortunately, D.J. is playing,” Fleetwood said. “But you never know what’s going to happen in a major when you get sucked into looking at the leaderboard.”
Johnson won the 2016 U.S. Open despite playing the back nine with a potential two-shot penalty hanging over him, pending a U.S. Golf Association decision about a possible infraction.
Johnson was asked about his failures to hold leads in previous majors and had, as usual, a succinct answer.
“If I can play like I did today, I think it will break that streak,” he said. “It’s just 18 holes of golf. I need to go out and play solid if I want to get it done.”
Smith, 27, won the Sony Open in January. He’s a big-game player though not a prolific winner. He finished fifth in the 2018 Masters and slipped into fourth at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay with a hot finish. Chambers Bay is where Jordan Spieth won the Open after Johnson three-putted from 10 feet on the final green.
“This is what we dream about, really,” Smith said of his position going into Sunday. “This is why we want to play. I can’t wait. He [Johnson] has a four-shot lead. Anyone with a four-shot lead is expected to win. There are going to be plenty of boys firing [at him] tomorrow.”
Masters Sunday will definitely be all about Johnson … one way or another.
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