The Golf Takes the Stage

By Stephen Delaney Hale  |  Photos Courtesy of The Augusta National Golf Club

In the end, the 2020 Masters Tournament was won by a major talent who counted it as his second major championship victory, and it was largely unchanged inside the ropes. Augusta National Golf Club and its members had pulled off moving the world’s premier golf tournament seven months to November, got lucky with the weather, got lucky with great play and competition, and certainly got a popular champion.

They deserved a break for their daring move and commitment to the tournament, the sport, and the town; their planning for so many unknowns paid off in a triumph. No doubt there were some long sighs of relief in the fabled clubhouse on Monday morning, and all ended well along Washington Road in Augusta.

Seeing Dustin Johnson sink putts, crush drives and put on the green jacket made the 2020 Masters as traditional as any of the most traditional events around the world. In the end, it was as if there were no complications to get in the way of the golf.


The Practice Rounds

Usually peaceful walks in the park for Masters competitors, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday practice rounds leading up to the tournament are the most frantic for the spectators, who typically have tickets for one of the three days and maybe the coveted Par-3 Contest on Wednesday. Many of those wide-eyed gallery members are fulfilling a lifetime bucket list item just to see Augusta National and some of their golfing heroes. They have to cram everything in; they must see every hole and every player they can, try all the famously simple, fresh, tasty and inexpensive sandwiches and, of course, buy every shirt and cap they can carry. A sure tipoff of a Masters rookie is one who buys all his or her swag on the way in and has to carry it all day. It will be there on the way out.

But none of that happened in November. Usually ringing up sales at a pace exceeding any department store owner’s dreams, the golf shops were empty, and the food stands were peaceful. In a nod to their epic support of the tournament, Masters patrons, lifetime owners of tournament tickets, were able to buy their Masters mementos online, including the pimento cheese.

The Usual Speculation From Experts

Since everybody who grew up with badges around Augusta, and every member of the media, are “experts,” everybody is a prognosticator before the tournament begins. The media members have a curious education, since they rarely venture out on to the course. They sit watching the tournament on a huge bank of televisions and listen to their fellow “experts” watching with them before writing down all the vital information they have ascertained from their “sources.”

But it is often the same.

As in all the last 25 Masters, in November 2020, everybody was talking about Tiger Woods – as well they should. Woods had fashioned a comeback for the ages by winning the 2019 tournament by a single stroke over PGA Tour stars Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and the youthful but already highly ranked Xander Schauffele.

That victory won Woods his fifth green jacket and 15th major championship. That left him just one Masters short of Jack Nicklaus’ record of six Masters and three shy of The Great One’s record of 18 major championships. Those two seemingly unassailable marks had been Woods’ impossible dreams since he won his first major, at the Masters Tournament, in 1997 at the age of 23. The 2019 victory here seemed to put those targets back in his sights.

It was 11 years after his last major win, the 2008 U.S. Open, and 14 years since his last Masters win. Due to his worldwide stature in the sporting world, the 2019 victory was regarded as among one of the greatest comebacks in any sport.

Could he do it again and catch Nicklaus?

Not many people in Augusta were willing to bet against him.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant that he would have to wait 19 months to play another Masters. Woods ended the year by winning in Japan for his 82nd career victory, tying the PGA Tour record held by Sam Snead. A Masters victory would give Woods one all-time golf record, tie another and move him within two wins of tying another. Sweet dreams are made of these.

Also on everybody’s tongue going into the 2020 Masters was scientist-golfer Bryson DeChambeau, who uses mathematics to design his swing and his clubs – making all of them the length of his 7-iron. In a radical departure from his, or anyone’s, preparations, DeChambeau was known to be practicing with an oversized 48-inch driver shaft. That is the length used by competitors in the World Long Drive Championships, an obvious assault plan on Augusta’s often vulnerable par-5s. He unleashed a show two months before the Masters, posting a six-stroke victory in the U.S. Open at famed Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., considered among the country’s most difficult and traditional courses.

The other name on everyone’s mind was Dustin Johnson.

He had already won The Travelers Championship earlier in the year, and then, in the leadup to the top tournaments, the 6-foot-4” long-driving South Carolinian put on a streak of great golf that would be difficult for any player to match.

He started by finishing in a tie for second at the COVID-19-delayed PGA Championship, won The Northern Trust during The Tour playoffs, was second in the next playoff event at the BMW Championship, tied for third at the Tour Championship, tied for sixth at the U.S. Open and tied for second at the Vivint Houston Open coming into the Masters.

Rory McIlroy will probably remain a big topic coming into the Masters until he wins it and puts himself among the all-time greats of the game who have won all four of the major championships. In the wrap-around season from last winter through the spring, McIlroy had seven straight tournaments where he finished no lower than a tie for fifth, including a win at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions, a stretch which loosely paralleled a string of five weeks ranked as World No. 1. He came into the Masters ranked No. 5.


 

Day One

Dustin Johnson led off the 2020 Masters in the form people expected. He shot a brilliant 7-under 65 and kicked his round off in high style with an eagle on the getable No. 2. He would birdie the other par-5 on the front nine before making birdie on the devilish par-3 No. 12 and then going 3-under on the last four holes coming in, with birdies on Nos. 15, 16 and 18. Without a bogey on his card, the conventional wisdom was looking pretty wise.

Tied with Johnson was a name nobody knew, Dylan Frittelli of South Africa, and British journeyman Paul Casey.  Frittelli also carded an eagle, on the classic par-5 No. 13, and followed that with a streak that would see him go 5-under on four holes, adding birdies on Nos. 14, 15 and 16. Casey got to his sterling number with his own eagle on No. 2, no bogeys and a 4-under 32 on the back.

The leaders were followed by a pack of highly regarded challengers. Tied a stroke behind at 66 were Justin Thomas and Sungjae Im.

Another stroke back at 67 were Cameron Smith, Web Simpson, Xander Schauffele and Englishman Justin Rose, who tied for second at the 2015 Masters and lost a playoff to Sergio Garcia at the 2017 Masters.

Following close behind with very respectable scores of 4-under 68 were 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed, Abraham Ancer of Mexico, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, American Cameron Champ, South African Louis Oosthuizen, the ageless German and two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, Englishman Lee Westwood and defending champion Tiger Woods.

In one of the lowest-scoring rounds in Masters history, 52 players finished under par, including eight who would eventually miss the cut.


Day Two

Friday patrons endured intermittent light rain interrupted by the real thing during a weather delay that started at 5:05 p.m. and lasted just 29 minutes. But most of the day was nice, and the temperature reached 84. Most Masters patrons take a weather delay as a cue to go shopping. After all, you’ve got the badge, and all your friends and relatives are home watching and wondering what color shirt or cap you are going to get for them. Of course, lightning must be taken seriously on any golf course, so if you don’t want to buy any clothes, a beer tent will do for shelter.

Friday was also a time for a parade of major champions. Five players finished in a tie for the lead, and all five of them have a least one major championship on their resume.

First-round co-leader Koepka had a rocky ride but moved his total a stroke lower to 7-under 137, with a 1-under 71 on Friday. He bracketed a disastrous double-bogey on No. 2 with birdies at Nos. 1 and 3. With two bogies and a birdie on the rest of the front nine, he made the turn at 37. He gathered his immense strength with a birdie on No. 15, then got back into a tie for the lead with a birdie on the final hole.

Former PGA champion Jason Day and 2018 Open champion Molinari put together scores of 5-under 67s to join Koepka. Playing their way into the leading quintet were 2013 Masters champion Scott with a 4-under 68, which included an eagle on No. 15, and the 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen with a seven-birdie, one-bogey 66. (Oosthuizen finished second to Bubba Watson in a playoff at the 2012 Masters. He holed the rarest of scores, a double-eagle on the par-5 No. 2, during that year’s final round.)

Johnson moved up a stroke to within one of first place with a 2-under 70 that included three birdies on the back nine. Tied with Johnson after the best round of the first two days, a 7-under 65, was Schauffele, firing eight birdies, including on all four par-5s. Tied with them was the man with the loudest footsteps on the golf course, Woods, who overcame two early bogeys with a 4-under 68.

Two of Thursday’s leaders lost some ground. Mickelson dropped to 4 under, three strokes behind, with a 1-over 73, and he wouldn’t get that close again. Four bogeys and a double bogey sliced DeChambeau’s standing from tied for the lead to trailing by four.

Coming in at 3-over 147, the 36-hole cut left 65 players with their clubs still in their hands – the most since the cut was established in 1957. Four of those still playing were amateurs, the most in 20 years.

Friday always has a bittersweet footnote in the great players who will not be around for the weekend. The cut was less brutal than usual, but it did include world No. 1 Rose. Also missing the cut was 1991 Masters champion Ian Woosnam, who announced his retirement as an active Masters competitor after signing his card.

Homeward Bound

The bittersweet moment of every Masters Tournament is the counting of the roll of favorite players who did not make the cut.

The wrong side of the cut was 1-over and those sent packing were Gary Woodland, Graeme McDowell and Matt Kuchar. Maybe not leaving for the weekend because they live in the region were Kevin Kisner of Aiken and Augusta native and 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize. Fred Couples, who once tied the record for the most cuts made at the Masters, took an early exit after a 6-over finish, and two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal, who finished at 14-over also missed the cut.


Day Three

Johnson made his move on Saturday and looked like a man determined to put any doubt behind him when he posted another tournament-low round of 65 to stake out a four-stroke lead at 16-under. Like on Thursday, Johnson made an early statement with an eagle on No. 2, followed it with three birdies on the front nine for what normally would have been a roar-filled 31, came in with the required birdies on Nos. 13 and 15, and built a four-stroke lead. Johnson took the lead at No. 2, the beautiful Pink Dogwood, and never looked back for the next 34 holes.

Smith was among the best of the runners-up, although he would have brought forth few roars had there been patrons present, opening with 12 straight pars before birdies at Nos. 13, 14 and 15 and carding a 69 to claim what normally would have been an excellent score of 12-under after 56 holes. Tied with Smith at 12-under were Im after a solid single-bogey 68 and Ancer, who made three birdies in his 3-under 69 to earn a share of second, four shots back.

Thomas looked like he might keep pace with a birdie of his own on No. 2, but a score of 34 on the front left him already three behind, and a four-bogey back-nine 37 relegated him to 10-under after the day and almost out of sight. The other second round co-leader, Jon Rahm, finished a shot behind Thomas after an even-par 72, which included a double bogey on the par-5 No. 8. Also at 9-under were Muñoz after a 3-under 69 and Reed after a 71.

By the time that most of the “virtual gallery” were settling in at home in front of their televisions, many of them still in inclement weather in the Northeast, Johnson had broken free of the pack in sunny Augusta.

One player who was making a move on Saturday was Frittelli, finishing the day at 11-under after shooting an excellent 67. The only other 67 of the day came from McIlroy, who was trying to keep his Grand Slam bid alive after opening with a 75 and following that with a 66. With his sights now on a bigger prize than just making the cut, McIlroy thrilled his many fans by getting to 5-under on Saturday’s round when he made birdie on the diabolically difficult No. 12. But going for it on the risk-reward classic No. 13, the Irish gambler couldn’t pull it off, made the bogey he couldn’t sustain, and finished at 8-under, only half the way to Johnson’s 16-under.

Other second round hopefuls, Pan, 74, Reed, 71, Matsuyama, 72, and Cantley, 73, were blitzed by Johnson’s blistering pace. Also falling away among those who started the day in contention at 7-under were Rose, 76, Willett, 74, and Fleetwood, although he did shoot a 1-under 71 to post a three-round 8-under in a tie with McIlroy.

Woods would shoot 72 to sit at 5-under and Mickelson shot a 79 with a triple bogey on No. 15 to end the day at 2-over.


Day Four

More than any other Masters tradition, a near- mathematical certainty is that the champion comes from one of the last two groups to tee off on Sunday. That tradition didn’t seem to be in any danger in 2020.

Johnson made his third and fourth bogeys of the tournament, the fewest of any player in the Masters’ 84-year history, at the fourth and fifth holes on Sunday, but three birdies on the front kept him in the lead, and a three-birdie stretch, using a total of three putts, on Nos. 13, 14 and 15 made his back nine a walk in the park. He would shoot a 4-under 68 for the day, for a 72-hole total of 20-under 268 (winning just over $2 million). When his birdie putt dropped on No. 15, Johnson became the first player in history to reach 20-under, and after he finished with three pars to post that score to win, he broke the tournament record of 270 set by Woods in 1997 and tied by Jordan Spieth in 2015.   

The other two contenders at the start of the day made plenty of noise in front of Johnson, but it just wasn’t going to be enough to slow down the record-making machine playing along the same fairways.

Smith made four birdies on his front nine, and when he got it up-and-down for birdie at the devilish No. 9, he had pulled to within one stroke of Johnson. But able to produce no more than a bogey and a birdie on the back nine, Smith could not keep up with Johnson’s fireworks and finished in a tie for second, five behind at 15-under. His 69 did give Smith an all-time Masters record as the only player to produce all four rounds in the 60s. Im, in his first Masters and just 22 years old, also shot 69 on Sunday.

In another era, when telephone calls required switchboards, Woods would have lit them up when he dropped three shots into the water on the infamous No. 12, taking a septuple-bogey 10 on the par-3 hole. With his extraordinary concentration, the defending champion then made birdie on five of his last six holes, including the last four – a first in Masters history – to finish with a 38 on the back nine. 

Johnson came into the 2020 Masters Tournament on a five-tournament run as the No. 1 player in the world and has held that spot throughout the winter as of Feb. 21, 2021, following his tie for eighth at The Genesis Open, the last contest on the West Coast.

Johnson seems as much at ease playing as world No. 1 as he did leading from Round 1 of the 2020 Masters Tournament through to a record-shattering victory in the 84-year history of the storied event. Anyone who watched him striding around the back nine at Augusta in November saw a then-35-year-old man in control of himself, and on that week at least, in control of the world of golf.

Article appears in the April 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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