Catching Dustin Johnson? Good luck with that

Dustin Johnson celebrates with his brother and caddie Austin Johnson on the 18th green winning the 2020 Masters Tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Dustin Johnson celebrates with his brother and caddie Austin Johnson on the 18th green winning the 2020 Masters Tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

The usual rules of engagement on any Sunday on the pro circuit is for the field to gang up on the leader, throw red numbers on the scoreboard and hope some of them hit him in the mojo. Given Dustin Johnson’s dire front-runner history in the majors — 0-for-4 when leading a major after 54 holes — that had to be the plan.

Let the record show Johnson, who led by four shots when the sun rose on Sunday at the Masters, indeed threw open a window late in the morning before slamming, locking and shuttering it, too. There apparently is no plan at Augusta National for 20 under par.

“He’s one of the first guys to ever bring athleticism to our sport,” defending champion Tiger Woods said. “D.J. has just an amazing ability to stay calm in tough moments and in order to win this event — and we all know as past champions how hard it is, the emotions we have to deal with out there — there’s no one more suited to that, I think, than D.J.”

ExploreDustin Johnson wins Masters by a landslide

Given how dominantly he finished, it is difficult to conceive Johnson allowed his lead to dwindle to one shot in just the space of the first five holes. When Sungjae Im, one of three players starting at 12-under and four back, birided Nos. 2 and 3, Johnson responded with back-to-back bogeys on No. 4 (three-putt) and 5 (from a fairway bunker). Suddenly Im was one swing down and Cameron Smith was within two. The last 13 holes looked wide open.

Dustin Johnson hits his second shot on the 18th green during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Dustin Johnson hits his second shot on the 18th green during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

And then they weren’t. Johnson birdied the par-3 sixth hole from seven feet, made a nifty sand save for par on No. 7 and then made a two-putt birdie on the par-5. Like that, he was back to 16 under. The lead went back to two shots. By No 10, it was up to three, after Smith, who had converted 17 of 23 up-and-down saves this week, bled his approach badly to the right and missed a 10-foot par try.

No one would get any closer the rest of the day. Smith became the first player in Masters history to record all four rounds in the 60s, which somehow was relegated to a footnote.

“I felt as though I needed to shoot 3‑ or 4‑under on that back nine with the wind the way it was,” Smith said. “It got pretty tricky out there. I would say after 16, after not birdieing 16, I thought if I birdied the last four, I thought I would still have a chance. At least make him think about it. And wasn’t to be.”

“Dustin definitely plays at another level,” Im said through a translator. “I’ve played with him a couple times and ... his accuracy off the tee is unbelievable to watch.”

The Demoralization Meter spiked midway through the back side, after Johnson birdied Nos. 13 (from 13 feet), 14 (six feet) and 15 (feet). The event had become the Runner-Up Sweepstakes.

“It was sort of that stretch where I was thinking, OK, if I can get one out of these, birdie 13, birdie 15, maybe pick up a couple more,” said Rory McIlroy, who shot 69. “Yeah, I mean, Dustin is just playing such solid golf, it was probably wishful thinking on my part.”

The final math was quite persuasive. Smith and Im shot twin 69s and were runners-up at five shots back. Justin Thomas’ closing 70 left him fourth at eight shots back, one ahead of McIlroy. Abraham Ancer, in second place when the day started? He shot 76. Dylan Frittelli, five back at the start? A 72. Those numbers would not do while Johnson was extending a string of sub-par rounds at the Masters to 11.

“The course suited him down to the ground.” said Brooks Koepka, whose 278 marked his second-lowest score in five trips to Augusta and still lost by 10. “He’s more of a picker of the ball. He doesn’t spin it that much with his irons. So the ball’s not going to be backing up, so he can get to a lot of the back pins a lot better. If you pick it like that, you can really, really control ... you’re never going to rip it off the front of the green, where I feel like a lot of people, pretty much everybody, struggled with that.”

“He played great golf like we all know he can play,” Jon Rahm said.

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