AUGUSTA - When they first announced that ESPN was going to graft the set for its Saturday college football preview show onto the Masters, maybe some eyebrows arched. Perhaps Bobby Jones even harrumphed from the great beyond.

But as it turned out, Augusta National was the perfect place for College GameDay this Saturday. For nowhere else in the great wide world fielded such a battle of top-ranked powerhouses.

By the time they finished the second round in the morning and got this rain-warped Masters back in sync, it looked like the college football playoff selection committee was setting up the leaderboard. The top three ranked players in the world were all tied for the lead, the first time for such a confluence in any round in any major. Ever.

And then No. 1 went out was looking like a cross between 1971 Nebraska and 2019 LSU. Dustin Johnson won the toss and elected to defer nothing. Charging out to begin his third round going eagle-birdie-birdie in his first four holes, Johnson gained plenty of social distance between himself and world’s No. 2 Jon Rahm and No. 3 Justin Thomas. And everyone else, too, regardless of their social standing in the game.

The third round began with 10 players separated by a single shot. It ended with them all at least a $10 Uber ride behind Johnson, after he posted his second 65 of the tournament. No one previously has put up two rounds of 65 or lower in the same Masters. And Johnson’s 16 under through three rounds ties Jordan Spieth (2015) for lowest 54 holes here.

Johnson holds a major title, the 2016 U.S. Open, so he should know how to comport himself Sunday with a 4-shot lead over the international cabal of Korean Sungjae Im, Mexican Abraham Ancer and Australian Cameron Smith. They’ll be coming at him from all corners of the globe. Other threats are at an even more respectful distance, like Thomas (10 under and six back), Rahm and 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed (both 9 under, seven back).

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Johnson also brings to Sunday the burden of holding the 54-hole lead in four previous majors and closing on none of them.

“If I can play like I did today, I think it will break that streak,” Johnson said following the third round.

Hardly a risky call there. Brilliance is hard to beat.

Saturday was about the cleanest little 65 you’ve ever seen. No missed fairways. No bogeys. He got up on the field early and only stepped back to dig another hobnail golf shoe into its throat.

Johnson covered 18 holes Saturday with the unconcerned gait of a fellow with nowhere in particular to go and all day to get there. He didn’t whistle “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho” between shots, but he should have.

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

Such was the ease of Johnson’s front-side 31 that the wonder was he didn’t shatter tournament record of 30. Three other birdie putts inside 18 feet went begging on the front nine, or he would have found himself in even rarer air.

Setting the tone for the day was his evisceration of the par-5 second hole. A drive of 363 yards down the hill left him 222 yards to the pin. His high 5-iron landed softly just three feet from the fifth double eagle in tournament history. With the subsequent eagle, he had his tailwind.

On display were all aspects of a complete game. Impeccable driving, that was a given this day. He would birdie with his iron play: The approach to No. 3 to 8 feet, just 2 feet to No. 7. And birdie with his blade: A putt of 38 feet on the par-3 4th. Not a club in the bag asked to be forgiven.

For his career, he was 72 under on Augusta National’s par 5s entering the third round. He’s 76 under now. He’s got that part of the winning-a-Masters formula down, too.

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

As for the other top 3 ranked players who began the round tied with Johnson at 9 under, both tired badly while trying to keep up with him.

On the par-5 8th, Rahm let his round get away with a second shot that inexplicably never got more than waist high off the ground and squirted across the fairway and into the trees. He plunked a pine, took an unplayable and had himself a ruinous double bogey. “I fought my (rear) off at the end to try to salvage an under par round, and I couldn’t,” said Rahm, who finished with a 72.

Thomas suffered four bogeys over his final seven holes and staggered in with a 71.

He didn’t exactly like his chances of catching Johnson, especially in the sterile environment of a Masters without fans.

“Unfortunately for all of us chasing D.J. there are no fans or anything to make that moment even harder, to have the buzz, to have the adrenaline, to have a little bit more pressure put on him that won’t be there this year,” Thomas said. “So it’s going to take something pretty special for me to have a chance (Sunday).”

Cautiously, Johnson said, “I think I’ve got a good game plan. I’m not going to change it. 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.”

If GameDay was still here, this would be about the time Lee Corso would put on a Dustin Johnson head cover.