Fall Guy

Masters Guide

Photos courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club

After springing out to a four-stroke, 54-hole lead, Dustin Johnson declared open season on the field to win the 84th Masters Tournament.

When Dustin Johnson arrived at Augusta National Golf Club in November for the 2020 Masters Tournament, postponed for seven months because of the coronavirus pandemic, he was in a good spot. He had notched two victories in the summer, winning the Northern Trust in August and the Travelers Championship in June. Playing well in the first two majors of the disrupted golf season, he had finished T6 at the U.S. Open and T2 at the PGA Championship.

He was the top-ranked golfer in the world and the reigning FedEx Cup champion after taking the title at the Tour Championship in September for his third win of the season.

Remarkably, though, he came to the 84th Masters, which was played without patrons in attendance, somewhat under the radar for the last major championship of the unprecedented year. Instead, the majority of the pre-tournament hype had been focused on U.S. Open winner Bryson DeChambeau.

However, the fact that most of the attention was directed elsewhere didn’t seem to bother the low-key Johnson, who had quarantined for 11 days in mid-October after testing positive for covid-19.

He had recovered in time to compete in the Masters, and he left Augusta National with yet another title after shooting a record-breaking 20-under par to win his second major championship and his first green jacket. Clearly, he was feeling just fine.

“I think I look pretty good in green, too,” said Johnson.

Same, but Different
With an abundance of pine trees on the golf course, Augusta National still looked pretty good in green for Masters Week in November as well. True to the season, though, maple and other species offered a splash of fall colors, particularly around Amen Corner.

However, the most noticeable difference in the tournament was the lack of patrons on the grounds.

“This is definitely a different Masters, and it’s just because the patrons aren’t here. Everything else feels the same. You know, really excited to be here and really looking forward to playing the Masters, and you know, everything’s the same other than not having the patrons,” said Johnson, who finished T2 at the 2019 Masters, on Tuesday. “It’s definitely a different feeling out there, and it’s going to be a different feeling throughout week. But it’s still the Masters, and there’s still a green jacket on the line.”

The absence of patrons was felt acutely during the Tuesday practice round, especially on No. 16 where many players still kept up the Masters tradition of skipping tee shots across the pond on the par-3 hole. Celebrating his 26th birthday, Jon Rahm skipped a 4-iron shot three times across the water and onto the green, then watched the ball roll the length of the putting surface into the hole.

He got a few cheers from TV camera crew members that were at the hole, but a gallery would have erupted.

“Pretty nice birthday present – can’t complain,” Rahm said. “You don’t see people skipping it and actually hitting it on the green very often. And to make it to a back pin, clearly we were all pretty shocked.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have been too surprised, however. After all, Rahm also made a hole-in-one on Monday with a 5-iron on the fourth hole.

“The one on four is actually a lot harder than – actually, I’m not going to say harder – but just a tougher hole in general,” he said.

The Par 3 Contest, normally held on Wednesday, was canceled last year. However, Fred Ridley, the Augusta National Golf Club and Masters Tournament chairman, held the chairman’s traditional press conference in the morning and discussed the challenges of holding the Masters during a global pandemic.

“Since the postponement of the Masters in March, we took the following months to plan for a tournament that would welcome a full complement of patrons to the city of Augusta,” he said. “By August, however, it became clear that, despite extensive planning and a resolve to safely stage a tournament with at least a limited number of patrons, the realities of the situation made it clear that our hope was simply not the right course of action.”

Augusta National consulted a variety of government officials and health organizations to put proper protocols in place for the tournament, Ridley added.

He also said he hoped that the tournament could return in April under more normal circumstances.

“Looking on to April, I’m hopeful that we will see improved conditions regarding this virus, but April is less than five months away. So, there’s certainly no assurance of that,” said Ridley.

Solid Start
In the meantime, though, there was a tournament to be played with a field of 92 players that included five amateurs and 21 professionals among 26 first-time players. Because of limited daylight hours, golfers teed off in threesomes on No. 1 and No. 10 all four days of the tournament.

Not until an all-important twosome got the proceedings underway, though. Masters champions Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit ceremonial tee shots on the first hole early Thursday morning. Although they teed off on time, inclement weather accompanied by lightning suspended play for three hours in the morning.

Play was suspended again late in the afternoon due to darkness, with 44 players left on the course. Paul Casey was the leader in the clubhouse with a 7-under-par 65 on the rain-softened golf course. Johnson still had nine holes to play.

By the time the first round ended Friday morning, Johnson, who eagled the par-5 second hole, and Dylan Frittelli had posted scores of 65 to tie Casey for lead.

“At any golf tournament, but especially majors, especially at Augusta, but any golf tournament, it’s always good to get off to a good start or just even a solid start, which I felt like I did,” said Johnson. “I got off to just a nice solid start. Hitting it good, leaving myself with nice putts, and hopefully rolling a few more tomorrow.”

The second round also was suspended because of darkness Friday, and four golfers – Johnson, Justin Thomas, Cameron Smith and Abraham Ancer – held the lead at 9-under-par when play was halted.

Saturday morning 48 players had to finish the second round, and at the end of the 36 holes, Jon Rahm also was tied for the lead – giving the world No. 1 (Johnson), No. 2 (Rahm) and No. 3 (Thomas) a spot atop the leaderboard.

Johnson’s round included back-to-back bogeys on the 14th and 15th holes. However, he birdied his way through Amen Corner, and added a birdie at No. 9, to shoot 70.

“I’m still happy with the way I’m swinging it, how I’m controlling the golf ball and everything I’m doing,” Johnson said. “You know, rolling the putter good. Just hopefully can see a few more go in over the weekend.”

Rewriting History
The weekend kicked off with a different look in 2020, when the Par 3 course was put to use as the site of ESPN’s “College GameDay” program Saturday morning.

On the main course, the lineup also was outside the norm as the cut had been changed to the low 50 and ties for the final 36 holes of the tournament. Players within 10 strokes of the lead did not advance. On Wednesday Ridley had said the new cut would have been in place for an April Masters, not because the tournament was postponed to November when the days are shorter. He said two reasons drove the decision.

“We thought that it was a reliable way to sort of better predict what our weekend field was going to be,” he said. “But the other thing is, we look back at the statistics, and the last few years, or the last several years, I think we’ve only had two players who have been in contention who made the cut only because of the 10-shot rule.”

The cut fell at even par 144, the lowest cut score in Masters history, and 60 players, including 11 past Masters champions, made the 36-hole cut. A record 14 first-year players including two amateurs, John Augenstein and Andy Ogletree, competed on the weekend. Thirty-three international players from 16 different countries also advanced.

The group included Bernhard Langer of Germany, a two-time Masters champion who shot 68 on Thursday and 73 on Friday. At the age of 63 years, two months and 18 days, he became the oldest player to make the cut at the tournament.

“To be the oldest to make the cut, it’s certainly an achievement,” Langer said. “Hopefully I get to play a few more years and enjoy this place.”

Other players in the field were looking for their opportunity to win so that they can play the Masters as former champions in the twilight of their careers as well.

After sharing the lead with a crowd at the end of the first two rounds, Johnson shot a bogey-free 65 in the third round to post a tournament score of 16-under-par for a four-shot lead by himself. His round included his second eagle of the tournament on No. 2, where his 5-iron approach shot landed about a foot from the pin, and birdies at the third, fourth, seventh, 13th and 15th holes. He also tied Jordan Spieth’s 54-hole record of 200.

“I feel like I’ve got a lot of control (over) what I’m doing, controlling my distance well with my flight and my shape. I’m very comfortable standing over the golf ball right now, and obviously that’s a really good feeling,” said Johnson.

He said course conditions were favorable for scoring, and he liked his chances on Sunday.

“I think I’ve got a good game plan. I’m not going to change it. It’s just, you know, I’m going to have to go out and play well. There’s a lot of really good players right around me, so as we all know here, if you get it going, you can shoot some low scores,” Johnson said. “I’m going to need to go out and play a really good round of golf if I want to win tomorrow. 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.”

Ancer and Sungjae Im, both playing in their first Masters, and Smith were tied for second place at 12-under.

Johnson woke up in a familiar position on Sunday – the windiest day of the tournament. Four times in his career, he had slept on the 54-hole lead at a major championship. However, he never had converted any of those leads into a victory, winning his only other major title at the 2016 U.S. Open by coming from behind.

On the front nine, it looked, briefly, as if history could repeat itself as Im chipped away at his lead.

Im birdied No. 2, and he and Johnson both birdied No. 3. After Johnson bogeyed Nos. 4 and 5, his lead had been trimmed to one shot over Im when they reached the sixth tee. When Johnson birdied the hole and Im bogeyed it, however, the world’s top-ranked player walked off the green with a three-shot cushion over Im and Smith.

Playing in the next-to-last group ahead of Johnson and Im, Smith birdied No. 7 to draw within two shots of the lead. Johnson then parred the seventh hole, and Im made bogey.

With another birdie on the eighth hole, Johnson reached 17-under and stretched his lead to three shots again. Smith birdied No. 9 to pull within two shots once more. However, that was the closest anyone would get to Johnson the rest of the afternoon.

Smith dropped a shot with a bogey at No. 11 to fall three behind, and Johnson pulled away from the field with three straight birdies on the 13th, 14th and 15th holes.

He parred the final three holes to seal his triumph with a round of 68 and achieve a lifelong dream.

“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 the most,” said the South Carolina native.

Johnson said he didn’t look at the leaderboard after the seventh hole and just concentrated on his own game.

“I took what the course gave me and hit the shots I felt I could hit,” he said.

The typically unflappable Johnson, wearing the latest addition to his wardrobe, grew uncharacteristically emotional in a post-round television interview on the putting green where the green jacket ceremony usually takes place.

“I’ve never had this much trouble gathering myself,” said Johnson, struggling to answer questions. “On the golf course, I’m pretty good at it. Out here, I’m not.”

His tournament play, however, spoke volumes. In his record-breaking victory, Johnson became the first player in Masters history to post a score of 20-under par – eclipsing the tournament record, previously held by Tiger Woods and Spieth, by two shots. He also tied the lowest score to par in major championship history, and he became one of only four No. 1-ranked players to win the Masters.

Johnson made just four bogeys (two in the second round and two in the final round) and hit the most greens in regulation (60) all week. His four bogeys also were the fewest ever by a Masters champion.

“I proved that I can get it done on Sunday with the lead at a major, especially in tough conditions. I felt like it was tricky out there today,” Johnson said.

Smith and Im shot 69 on Sunday to finish knotted in second place at 15-under par, and, with their 273 total, they tied for the lowest 72-hole score by a non-winner. Smith secured another spot in the history books, becoming the first player to shoot all four rounds of the tournament in the 60s.

“It would have been cool to do that and win,” said Smith. “I was actually saying before, you know, I’d take 15‑under around here the rest of my career, and I might win a couple.”

Food for Thought
It was Johnson, however, who savored the taste of victory on Sunday when Woods, the 2019 winner, draped a 42 long on the new champion’s shoulders. Rituals are a hallmark of the tournament, and at the start of the week, Johnson had been asked about his favorite Masters tradition.

“I don’t know if it’s really tradition, but my favorite thing about the Masters is the sandwiches,” he said. “All of them.”

For future tournaments, however, Johnson might want to rethink his favorite Masters tradition. The Champions Dinner, perhaps?

By Betsy Gilliland