Better than a Dream

By David Westin  |  Photos provided by The Augusta National Golf Club

Almost everything about the 2020 Masters Tournament had a strange feel to it – except for the fact that Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, took home the green jacket. Not that he would enjoy wearing it for long outside the Augusta National Golf Club gates. When he drove down Magnolia Lane the night of Nov. 15 with the jacket, the 2021 Masters was less than five months away, and at that time Johnson would have to return the jacket to the club.

That short turnaround between tournaments was because of the biggest tournament change in 2020 – its date. It was postponed from its normal April date to mid-November because of COVID-19 precautions. Only once in the previous 83 Masters had the tournament not been played in April (the inaugural Masters, in 1934, was played in late March).

Because of the pandemic, the tradition-rich Masters took a big hit. In addition to wiping out the spring date, no patrons were allowed on the course for the first time, and the Par-3 Contest was canceled. So were two sister events at Augusta National – the second annual Augusta National Women’s Amateur’s final round, planned for the Saturday before the Masters, and the Drive, Chip & Putt competition for youngsters, which had been held the Sunday prior to the Masters the previous seven years. Also dropped was the formal green jacket ceremony on the putting green, though a smaller one was still held.

It was the first time the Masters was the last major championship played in a year. Because of the switch in order, it will now be the first major to be played back-to-back when it returns to its normal spot as the first major of the season starting April 8. It’s such a small window between tournaments that Johnson hasn’t even had a birthday. He’s still 36 years old – his birthday isn’t until June.

Even the starting field was affected by the virus. Sergio Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, and rising star Joaquin Niemann both had to withdraw after testing positive for COVID-19.

Johnson himself had already had a COVID-19 scare. On Oct. 14, he tested positive the day before the CJ Cup in Las Vegas and had to quarantine  for 11 days in a hotel room there. When he came back to competition, at the Houston Open, which started Nov. 5 (the week before the Masters), Johnson didn’t miss a beat. He tied for second place, continuing an impressive roll. In his previous six starts before the Masters, dating back to Aug. 8, he had won twice, finished second three times and tied for sixth. During that stretch, he won the FedEx Cup and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year.

With Garcia and Niemann on the sidelines at the Masters, that left 92 players, who went off both the first and 10th tees in the first round for the first time in an opening round in order to beat the darkness of the shorter fall days.

In keeping with the theme of a “different Masters,” Johnson did his part – his sterling play was one for the record books. He broke the 72-hole scoring record that had stood for 23 years, shaving two shots off it while romping to a five-shot victory.

One thing didn’t change, which Johnson noted in his pre-tournament interview. Asked about his favorite part of the Masters tradition, he said it was the sandwiches that are available to patrons at the concession stands throughout the course. Though patrons weren’t allowed in 2020, all the regular sandwiches – including pimento cheese, of course – were available for the players and for workers, volunteers, media and club members at the tournament. As a follow-up question, Johnson was asked what his favorite Masters sandwich was. “All of them,” he said.

Johnson grew up less than an hour away in Irmo, S.C., a suburb of Columbia (where he was born), and played golf at Coastal Carolina in Conway, S.C. That made for yet another first: He became the first native South Carolinian to win the Masters, which he attended as a teenager, enjoying those famous sandwiches on the course and wondering if one day he could win.

“Yeah, I for sure definitely dreamed about winning the Masters, and it (the dream) wasn’t even close (to reality),” Johnson said in January, two months after the victory. “You dream about winning it and what it’s going to be like, but until you actually do and experience it, yeah, I don’t think the dream was anywhere close to the feeling, the gratification and everything that goes along with it. It was much more special than I dreamed, for sure.”

It was Johnson’s 25th victory worldwide – he would add another in February at the European Tour’s Saudi International – and his second major championship. But “this is the one we’ve been dreaming about,” said Johnson’s younger brother, Austin, his caddie for the past eight years.

The magnitude of the victory didn’t hit Johnson until after he’d been presented his green jacket in the Butler Cabin TV ceremony and then met with the media. Afterward, during a CBS-TV interview on the putting green, the normally cool, calm and collected Johnson unsuccessfully fought back tears.

“It’s just incredible, obviously, as you can tell,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to talk.”

Looking back on the interview now, Johnson said, “Usually I feel like I can control my emotions pretty well and, obviously, in that instance I couldn’t. So it wasn’t surprising. It was a little surprising that there wasn’t anything I could do to control it. But it was just such a great moment for me and my family and so it obviously meant a lot to me. It was obviously tears of joy. But that was one time where I had no control of my emotions and could not gather myself. I mean, everyone that I’ve talked to or seen, obviously they really liked it and they said it was nice to see that I did show some emotion, just because I try, out on the golf course, not to try to get too excited or too upset.”

Since there had never been a “Fall Masters” before, the biggest question was how the cooler weather and fuller grass on the fairways would affect the scoring. It was thought the scores might be higher than normal, but that changed when heavy rain fell the night before and in the morning of the first round, soaking the greens. That made them more receptive to approach shots. Instead of balls bouncing off hard greens, some were stopping in their tracks, setting up shorter birdie putts. One player, Bryson DeChambeau, had a lost ball on the third hole when his tee shot plugged in a low-lying area left of the fairway and wasn’t found before the time limit for the search expired. He was forced to take a one-shot penalty and return to the tee.

The course did not completely dry out until late in the tournament. By then, Johnson was on his way to the tournament record. That wasn’t the only scoring record: The field’s average of 71.75 per round was the lowest in Masters history.

Johnson finished at 20-under-par 268, two shots better than the record set by Tiger Woods in 1997, which was matched by Jordan Spieth in 2015.

“D.J. was just too good at the end,” said Australia’s Cameron Smith, who tied for second place, noting that Johnson shot 3-under 33 on the back nine.

On the night before the final round, Johnson knew he had tied the tournament’s 54-hole scoring record at 16-under, but he didn’t know the 72-hole record was 18-under until he was told after he finished his round Sunday. He thought it was 19-under.

When corrected, he said, “18, OK. I knew I was close, and so I wanted to play well and get the record.”

It wasn’t the only record he set. His four bogeys were the fewest by a Masters champion, and he became the first player to shoot 65 or better twice in one tournament (he did it in the first and third rounds). His closing 68, shot in a tricky wind on the back nine, was his 11th consecutive sub-par round in the Masters, breaking the record of 10 set by Woods from the second round of 2000 through 2002’s final round.

Johnson led the field in greens in regulation (60 out of the 72) and was sixth in driving distance (306.7 yards).

Johnson’s five-shot win was the largest margin of victory since Woods won by 12 in 1997. It came over Smith and Korea’s Sungjae Im, who both closed with 69s. Smith, playing in his fourth Masters, became the first player to shoot four rounds in the 60s in the same Masters (he opened with 67-68-69), a feat  most people assumed would be accomplished by a tournament winner.

“I honestly can’t believe it,” said Smith, who was unaware of the record until after the round. “It would have been cool to do that and win. I’d take 15-under around here the rest of my career and might win a couple.”

The “easier” November course seemed to set up well for Masters first-timers like Im, whose 273 was the lowest 72-hole score ever fired by a Masters first-timer. Another Masters rookie, China’s C.T. Pan, tied for seventh place, and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer was a 36-hole co-leader before finishing tied for 13th in his Masters debut.

Johnson, though ranked No. 1 in the world and already a three-time winner in 2020, wanted to make a major statement in Sunday’s final round, where he carried a four-shot lead to the first tee. Though Johnson had won 10 out of the 17 times he had a 54-hole lead in regular PGA Tour events, he was 0 for 4 when leading after three rounds in majors. He rallied to win his only other major, the 2016 U.S. Open.

“Well, I proved that I can get it done on Sunday with the lead at a major, especially in tough conditions,” Johnson said afterward. “I felt like it was tricky out there today.  You know, and I proved to myself that I do have it, because I’m sure a lot of y’all think that … or even I, there was 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.  I knew I was playing well enough to.  It’s just, like I said, it’s very tough to get it done on Sunday in a major.”

It’s also not easy to win the Masters when you’re ranked No. 1 in the world. Since the world ranking started in 1986, only Ian Woosnam (1991) and Woods (2001 and 2002) had won the Masters while ranked No. 1.

“I don’t really think about it, especially not while I’m playing golf, or I try not to,” Johnson said of being the world’s top-ranked golfer. “It kind of drives me to want to get better and stay there. I use it as a tool to drive me to stay in this position and drive me to get better.”

As for the short time that Johnson will have the green jacket in his possession, he found some positives. With the 2020 Masters being in November and the last major of the year instead of the first, Johnson was able to sit back and savor what he’d done, even wearing the green jacket around his house, he said. Normally, he would still have three-quarters of the season left to go. This way, his season was over until early January and the holidays were approaching.

“It’s a nice jacket to have in the closet,” he said. “It was nice to have. Winning it when I did, in November, was kind of nice because I did get to take some time off and enjoy it. And obviously, with the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, I got to spend a lot of time with the family, and so it’s been great. Did a little bit of celebrating, too.”

He doesn’t plan to be without the jacket for long. Maybe only three days – the time between when he has to return it to the club before the first round and the end of the 2021 tournament.

“Hopefully, I’ll just get another one in April,” he said.

Article appears in the April 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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