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2020 Masters: Past major champions come up way short

Justin Thomas at 2020 Masters
Justin Thomas finishes 4th at the Masters but fails to put any pressure on Dustin Johnson, the eventual champion, over the final 36 holes.

Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka finish near the top of the leaderboard but fail to apply much heat on the weekend

No one would dare say that the way Dustin Johnson played for 72 holes at the Masters made it possible for anyone to catch him. But wouldn’t it have been worth watching all the more if golf’s top players at least had made a game of it?

The tournament’s three biggest disappointments – Americans Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka – never threatened to put any heat on Johnson over the final 36 holes. Although they had credible finishes – Thomas was fourth, McIlroy tied for fifth and Koepka tied for seventh – none of the three ever was close (scores).

Which made the result all the easier for Johnson, whose 20-under 268 total set the tournament scoring record. The other two players in his group on Sunday were South Korea's Sungjae Im and Mexico's Abraham Ancer, both first-time Masters participants. Im and Australia’s Cameron Smith shared runner-up at 15-under 273 but neither was experienced enough in the crucible of the final round of a major championship to look as if he was doing any more than playing for second.

The American trio, with nine major titles among them, should have been the players who took the tournament to Johnson and at least made him work harder for his first green jacket. But Thomas lost the Masters on Saturday, McIlroy frittered it away on Thursday and Koepka seemed not to have a chance from the time he showed up at Augusta National last week.

“Woo, seventh,” Koepka said, sarcastically. “I don't know what else to say to that. I'm not too happy.”

Neither was Thomas nor McIlroy. Thomas and Johnson were tied with three others at 9 under after 36 holes, and observers were primed for a Dustin-Justin shootout on the weekend. But Johnson’s third-round 65 dusted Thomas, who could manage only 71.

“I hit a lot of shots exactly how I wanted,” Thomas said Saturday evening. “Just one of those days where stuff didn't go my way. I was a couple yards here or there. A couple yards from carrying the bunker on 8 or just a little left, and I have a 5-wood in. You know, hit some mud balls on a couple good tee shots, but that's just the way it is. 

“I know one thing is, I can't make four bogeys on the back nine if I expect to win this golf tournament.”

Thomas, who has one major championship to his credit, was looking for help catching Johnson that just wasn’t there.

“It's a really big deal there's no patrons here,” Thomas said Saturday. “That would have really played to my advantage, or other guys trying to chase D.J. It makes it harder when you can hear the birdies and eagles and putts being made.

“Unfortunately, that won't be the case [Sunday], but there's nothing I can do about that. I can't sit at home and sulk about that tonight.  I just need to get over my finish and just come out and be ready to try to shoot a really low one. And if it's good enough, great. If not, get ready for April.”

Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka in final round of 2020 Masters
Rory McIlroy (left) and Brooks Koepka, both 4-time major champions, fail to come close in their respective bids for a 5th on Sunday at the Masters.

McIlroy played the best golf of the three, just not for all four rounds. He was 14 under in his final 54 holes after recording a sloppy, smelly 75 in the first round. He looked for all the world like a man who had just received a golf lesson, which he did just before the Zozo Championship in October.

Butch Harmon let it slip on Sky Sports that he met with McIlroy for upwards of five hours and took a hard look at every aspect of his swing. McIlroy tried to take that insight to the golf course on Thursday, and the results were just plain ugly.

“I just got a little careful, a little tentative, a little guide-y,” McIlroy said. “I just didn't trust my swing, didn't commit to what I was doing, and again, this course more than any other can make you do that at times.”

But McIlroy’s swing doesn’t appear to be the problem. In fact, the way he hits the ball looks to be his strength. It’s putting that stands between McIlroy and a fifth major. That, and perhaps he needs a caddie who’s proficient at reading putts, because it’s clear McIlroy isn’t very good at it.

“The good golf was in there; I just didn't allow myself to play that way on the first 18 holes,” McIlroy said. “This course can do that. This course can make you a little bit careful and a little bit tentative at times. I've always said I play my best golf when I'm trusting and freer, and I've been a lot freer over the last 36 holes.” 

Koepka’s excuse was that the soft course conditions dealt Johnson a better hand. “The course suited him down to the ground. He's more of a picker of the ball. He doesn't spin it that much with his irons. So, the ball's not going to be backing up, so he can get to a lot of the back pins a lot better.

“If you pick it like that, you're never going to rip it off the front of the green, where pretty much everybody struggled with that.” 

Thomas, for one, is already in full spin mode and looking ahead to April 2021, the next regularly scheduled Masters.

“[This week] was far from my best stuff,” Thomas said. “So, to finish fourth is a positive. I keep getting better. I'm very confident I'm going to win around this place at some point. I just don't know when or if it will happen. I'm very comfortable. I just need to execute a little bit better.” 

Well, eight shots better, actually, which was the gap between Thomas and Johnson. But eight shots is nothing when rationalization is the 15th club in your bag.

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