It’s the standard anxiety dream: a chase is on and the pursuer, despite pushing to the limit, can’t make himself move.
Having to put together his finest back-to-back rounds in his five Masters, Justin Thomas was 3-under after 10 holes of his third round on Saturday and found he was only standing still. After Dustin Johnson leap-frogged the field early on with his eagle-birdie-birdie act, Thomas, who started the day as a co-leader, stacked solid shot upon solid shot until he couldn’t anymore.
If there is some solace in knowing the player he chased set a Masters' 54-hole scoring record, it was lost upon Thomas, who co-led after two rounds and enters Sunday on a wing and a prayer. After stalking Johnson much of the day, a handsome Saturday round (five birdies) fell apart late in the day (four bogeys), leaving Thomas with a 1-under 71 and six shots behind Johnson, who basically strafed everyone near him.
At 10 under, Thomas trails not only Johnson (-16), but also Masters rookies Sungjae Im and Abraham Ancer, (both at -12), Cameron Smith (-12) and Dylan Frittelli (-11). The odds on such a leaderboard when the day began? Pretty much none.
“Yeah, disappointing about wraps it up,” he said. “No, I played beautifully today. That’s probably what’s most frustrating is I hit the ball so flush. I hit a lot of shots exactly how I wanted. Just one of those days where stuff didn’t go my way. I was a couple yards here or there.”
At another Masters with real people in attendance, this would have made for some heavy drama. Playing in the group behind Johnson, Thomas' steady pursuit - birdies answering birdies - might have electrified the place. Instead, Johnson’s relentless progress played out in a vacuum.
“I think it’s a really big deal there’s no patrons here,” Thomas said. "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 tomorrow, but there’s nothing I can do about that.
“I can’t sit at home and sulk about that (Saturday) night. 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.”
It may be awhile before another opportunity like this rolls around. At 27, Thomas is already a 17-time PGA Tour champion in just his seventh full season. The lone shortcoming that he would want to address in his portfolio is his performances in the majors. After winning the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in his 10th major appearance, his best showing in the three years since is a sixth-place tie in the 2018 PGA. At this year’s U.S. Open, his opening-round 65 led the field early at Winged Foot before he faded and tied for eighth.
Augusta National has remained a particular puzzle. While his performances have improved every year, his best finish to date is a 19th-place tie last year. In 2018, he held down ninth place on Sunday morning only to go backwards, shooting 73 and tying for 17th.
This week had been something of a revelation. His 66-69 start marked his best back-to-back rounds among his 18 at Augusta. He was in second place after one round and tied with Johnson, Jon Rahm, Abraham Ancer and Cameron at 9-under when the third round began.
Stalking Johnson from the first hour of play, Thomas sliced his lead to three shots by birdieing the par-3 6th from 11 feet but still he made the turn in 34 to Johnson’s 31. Another birdie from 12 feet after an excellent 160-yard approach at No. 10 cut Johnson’s advantage to two strokes, putting Thomas 3 under for the day. With the two par-5s to play, his prospects were limitless.
But the harder he pushed, the further the tournament got away from him. After bogeying No. 12 from the back fringe to open Amen Corner, he birdied No. 13 to keep Johnson’s edge to three shots. There, the day turned.
A too-hot chip shot from behind No. 14 green left him with a 23-foot par putt. He missed while Johnson was birding No. 15, pumping his lead up to five. Needing to cash in at the last par-5, Thomas did the opposite on No. 15, flying the green with his second shot into the pond, leading to another bogey, his third in four holes.
“That was one of my best swings of the day,” he said of his approach. “The wind just switched a little bit. When you’re hitting to a target that small and narrow, you know, ... and (the wind) goes the other way, that’s a difference of four or five yards. I mean, I still had it in a great position to make par, but just missed the putt.”
Johnson was virtually out of sight by then. Thomas managed a final birdie from six feet at the par-3 16th but a final bogey out of a green-side trap on No. 18 finished out a once-promising round. With his 71, he had plummeted from first place to sixth, Johnson gaining a half-dozen shots on him, three of them on the closing five holes.
“I know one thing is, I can’t make four bogeys on the back nine if I expect to win this golf tournament,” Thomas said as the sun set. “So I’ve got about 20 minutes of daylight left here. So go hit some putts and try to figure something out and shoot really low tomorrow.”