Dustin Johnson’s record Masters week shows he can be the dominant guy

A look back at the most recent champions of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club

Dustin Johnson was winning tournaments not long after he earned his PGA Tour card in 2008. He won his first major championship in 2016. After Johnson crushed the field with the best-ever performance at the Masters, he showed he can be the one dominant golfer in an era when that’s hard to do.

Johnson grew up in South Carolina, about an hour away from Augusta, dreaming of winning the Masters. He did it with a brilliant performance that included scores of 65 in the first and third rounds. In the end, a Masters held in the fall with no fans produced a conventional champion.

Johnson is the first world top-ranked player to win it since Tiger Woods in 2002.

“I know 2020 has been a really strange year, but it’s been good to me,” Johnson said. “I’ve played some good golf.”

Johnson finished at 20-under par on Sunday to best the record 18 under posted by Woods in 1997 and matched by Jordan Spieth in 2015. Johnson started the day with a four-shot lead and won by five over Cameron Smith and Sungjae Im. They had a brief opening early in the round but, after that, Johnson sucked the drama out of the day with five birdies and no bogeys over five of his final 13 holes.

Soon after Johnson finished his round of 68 on Sunday, Woods, last year’s winner to Johnson’s runner-up, draped the green jacket on his shoulders. Since Woods won 14 of 45 majors entered from 1997-2008, several golfers have enjoyed brief stays at the top of golf. Now it’s Johnson’s turn, and there’s a chance he’ll be there longer.

Johnson joins the short list of multiple major winners still in prime age. Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka each have won four. Jordan Spieth has three. Johnson, 36, is the oldest of the four but has the best recent form.

Koepka won his four majors from 2017-19 but persistent hip and knee problems limited him this year. He still managed three top 10 finishes, including a tie for fifth at the Houston Open the week before the Masters. That raised the possibility Koepka might challenge at Augusta, but he finished tied for seventh.

McIlroy won his four majors from 2011 to 2014 and none since, though he’s been in contention several times. He couldn’t get back in this Masters after shooting 75 to open while several others went low. McIlroy won four tour events in 2019, none this year.

As McIlroy started fading in majors, Spieth surged. In 2015, he won the Masters and U.S. Open and was runner-up by a stroke to Jason Day at the PGA Championship. Spieth has won one of the past 20 majors, the 2017 British, with two other top-5 finishes. This year Spieth tied for 71st at the PGA, missed the cut at the U.S. Open and tied for 46th at the Masters with three rounds over par.

Dustin Johnson (right) reacts after teeing off on the 14th hole next to Sungjae Im 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@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

Johnson is pulling away from those rivals. He’s ranked fifth or better in the World Golf Ranking for five straight years. His 14 tour victories over that time include the 2016 U.S. Open and four FedEx Cup playoff events, including the 2020 Tour Championship.

Yet he had a reputation for fading on the final day of majors. Johnson had at least a share of the lead after 54 holes four previous times without winning. He gave back three strokes at the 2010 U.S. Open, one at this year’s PGA Championship and fell out of a tie at the US. Open in 2015 and 2018.

This time Johnson never gave back his advantage. It was down to one stroke when he made consecutive bogeys at No. 5 and Im, who’d birdied Nos. 2 and 3, made par. But Johnson birdied No. 6 while Im posted consecutive bogeys. Smith, playing one group ahead, never got closer than two strokes to the lead.

“D.J. has just an amazing ability to stay calm in tough moments,” Woods said. “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.”

Johnson will return to Augusta in April to defend his title, assuming his health and pandemic conditions allow it. He’ll have several foes trying to knock him off top.

Last year's Masters champion Tiger Woods (right) applauds after presenting Dustin Johnson his first green jacket in front of Butler Cabin for winning the Masters Tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

There’s Koepka, McIlroy and Spieth. There’s also Bryson DeChambeau, who won the U.S. Open in September by six strokes for his first major title. DeChambeau tied for 34th at the Masters.

As usual, there’s a wave of talented young golfers coming up from behind. One of them, Colin Morikowa, bested Johnson by two strokes at the PGA Championship in August. Im, 22, became the third-youngest player to finish in the top 5 in his Masters debut (Woods and Spieth were 21).

Woods, who will be 45-years old next month, proved at last year’s Masters that he can’t be dismissed. He showed his age this year. The long day of golf on Saturday, necessitated by weather delays, took a toll on his balky back. While Johnson was besting his Masters scoring record, Woods was shooting a 76 that included a ghastly 10 at the par-3 12th.

No golfer on tour now will come close to Woods’ 15 major championships. He was so much better than his peers during his prime. Now the top players are bunched together and the fields are deeper, in part because Woods inspired thousands of kids to pick up clubs.

Phil Mickelson, 50, is next with five majors. McIlroy and Koepka are one behind. For years, Johnson had been the best among the group with one major championship. Now he’s got two and an even stronger claim as the best player in the world.

“Obviously the first major’s the hardest, but then I would say the second one is just as hard,” Johnson said. “They are all difficult to win.”

Johnson made it look easy on Sunday at Augusta. It was a sign that his stay at the top of golf can be a long one.