So much for tradition.
Dustin Johnson won a Masters unlike any other on Sunday. In a year that’s turned everyone’s world upside down, that somehow seems appropriate.
The champion had to overcome his own bout with the dreaded COVID-19 just a month ago. A positive test caused him to spend 11 days quarantined in a Las Vegas hotel room.
“I felt like I had a cold,” Johnson told USA Today. “A little bit of a fever for maybe 36 hours. But after that, I felt fine. The worst part about it was the quarantining in the room for so long.”
But there was no way Johnson was going to miss the Masters. Not after growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, and pretending every putt he lined up was to win the Masters.
“Granted, you sit in a hotel room for two weeks, it doesn’t do a lot for the golf game,” Johnson continued. “But I put a lot of work in last week, and this week, and I was fortunate that I was able to keep the game in good form.”
Did he ever. Johnson’s final score of 268, 20 under par, broke the Masters scoring record by two strokes. Both Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth had shot 270.
When Jack Nicklaus set a scoring record with a 271 in 1965, Masters founder Bobby Jones famously said, “He plays a game with which I am unfamiliar.” Jones would be mystified by Johnson’s game.
Here’s an interesting tie-in: Johnson set a Masters record for fewest bogeys in the tournament, with four. The previous record was five. By Nicklaus. In 1965.
Half of Johnson’s Masters bogeys came during the first five holes on Sunday. Just as he was embarking on ending his 0-for-4 streak when leading majors after three rounds.
Saturday, he seized the lead early by playing the first four holes four under par, cruising to a four-shot lead and finishing with a smooth 65.
On Sunday, his third shot on the par-5 second hole was a duffer’s classic. From a muddy lie, he chipped right into the front bunker. He scrambled to make a par that felt like a bogey.
On the next hole, he hit a poor putt from just off the green and missed the par putt. He drove into a fairway bunker on the fifth hole, causing another bogey.
Suddenly, he led his playing partner, Sungjae Im, by a single shot.
Just as suddenly, Johnson showed us what champions are made of. He hit a gorgeous 8-iron on the 180-yard sixth hole inside 10 feet and made the birdie putt. When Im missed his par putt, the lead was back to three, and order was restored.
No one would get closer than two shots the rest of the way, and that pursuer never seemed like a real threat. Young Cameron Smith of Australia would become the first player in Masters history to shoot all four rounds in the 60s.
On Sunday he spent most of the day showing us parts of the golf course that we had never seen before. One hole he was hitting off a bed of pine straw, the next he was hitting from the adjacent fairway. He even managed to ricochet a ball off the Sarazen Bridge.
It’s a good thing he was the best putter in the tournament, gaining 9.92 strokes putting to lead the field. He tied with Im at 15 under, the best losing score in Masters history. They’ll both be back.
After settling himself, Johnson seemed on cruise control, just as he had been through Saturday’s round. He gained 13.8 shots on the field with his drives and approach shots, five shots better than anyone else.
For the week Johnson put together two bogey-free rounds and finished in the top ten in driving and putting. He also led the tournament by hitting 60 of 72 greens in regulation.
But it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“It was a battle all day,” Johnson told The Athletic. “Just an internal battle with myself. I knew I had to play well if I wanted to win, and, yeah, it never got easier. I thought it would, but it never did. Not from the first tee to the last putt. I felt like I was battling all day, in a good way.”
Watching him, you’d never know Johnson was anything but serene. “See ball, hit ball, see putt, make putt, go to the next,” Rory McElroy told The Athletic. “It’s something to admire all the time. I think he’s got one of the best attitudes towards the game of golf in the history of the game.
“I don’t know if I can compare him to anyone else, but the way he approaches the game is awesome.”
That’s what made the annual green jacket presentation so moving and memorable. Johnson was literally overcome with emotion as the realization of being Masters champion set in.
“On the golf course, I’m pretty good at controlling my emotions because, you know, I’m out playing golf,” he told The Athletic. “But I had a tough time out there speaking with Amanda (Balonis of CBS) on the putting green.
“Just because it means so much to me. It means so much to my family, Paulina, the kids. They know it’s something that I’ve always been dreaming about, and its why I work so hard.”
In a Masters unlike any other, that was somehow the perfect finish.