International group chases DJ at Masters: ‘Why not go for it?’

Cameron Smith hits out of the bunker on the 18th green during the third round of the Masters Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in  Augusta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Cameron Smith hits out of the bunker on the 18th green during the third round of the Masters Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Augusta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Dustin Johnson will take a four-shot lead into the final round of the Masters on Sunday. If it goes as expected then Johnson will add another major championship to his 2016 U.S. Open title. It’s hard to imagine Johnson, unflappable on the course, blowing this after he finally took control of a major on the third day.

Yet more accomplished players than Johnson have given away majors. Should he join that list, there’s a group of four young players from all parts of the world ready to take advantage.

Tied at 12-under par, four strokes behind Johnson, are Sungjae Im of Korea, Cameron Smith of Australia and Abraham Ancer of Mexico. South African Dylan Frittelli is at 11-under. They were the only players within five shots of Johnson after the third round concluded on Saturday. Im and Ancer will be in the final pairing at the No. 1 with Johnson.

I don’t believe those players have an advantage because Johnson is feeling the most pressure. Ancer isn’t buying it, either.

“He’s in a spot that he’s been there before multiple times, and (he’s) No. 1 in the world,” he said. "I think he’s right where he wants to be, obviously. We know that we have to go low, and that’s it. It’s very simple. We have to just make a lot of birdies.

“I mean, if DJ goes out there and plays really solid like today, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to catch him.”

ExploreAJC photos from the third round

The four international players will give it a shot. They all are relatively unknown and 30-years old or younger. They also don’t fit the typical profile of a Masters champion. The winner usually has significant experience at Augusta and consistently good results there or in other majors.

Im and Ancer are playing the tournament for the first time. Frittelli played it once before, in 2018, and missed the cut. Smith, 27, has the most experience at Augusta (four appearances) and the best showing among the four with a tie for fifth in 2018. He also tied for fourth at the 2015 U.S. Open.

Smith was one leader after Friday’s suspended second round. He finished with an eagle at No. 15 and birdies at Nos. 16, 17 and 18. He posted pars over his first 12 holes in the third round before stringing together birdies at Nos. 13, 14, 15.

Smith likely will need similar runs of low scores to have a chance to at least put some pressure on Johnson in the final round.

“It’s what we dream about, really,” Smith said. “That’s why we want to play. I really just can’t wait for tomorrow. ... We’ll obviously need a hot start tomorrow, and then the back nine has been kind to me all (week), so hopefully it can be kind to me one more day.”

Smith, Ancer, Im and Frittelli have a combined five tour victories among them. Smith is the only one of them to finish in the top 15 at a major. Yet they are in contention for the final round of the Masters, while more famous international players have faltered.

Spaniard Jon Rahm, ranked No. 2 in the world, is seven shots behind Johnson at 9 under. Unless something outlandish happens on Sunday, he’ll still be among the best players to never win a major when he leaves Augusta.

The same goes for Englishman Tommy Fleetwood and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, both 8 under. Irishman Rory McIlroy has won the other three major championships but, at eight shots back, he won’t be completing the career Grand Slam on Sunday.

Im, 22, is trying to become the latest young international player to make a splash on tour. He’s on a rapid trajectory. Im was tour rookie of the year in 2019, when he made 26 cuts and placed 19th in the FedEx Cup standings. This year, Im won the Honda Classic a

Sungjae Im talks with fellow golfers on the 10th hole during the third round of the Masters Saturday at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Sungjae Im talks with fellow golfers on the 10th hole during the third round of the Masters Saturday at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

nd placed 22nd at the U.S. Open.

Im has seemed composed while playing in his first Masters. He said that, after playing a practice round on Monday, he felt that Augusta suits his game. He also sought advice from Korean tour pro K.J. Choi, who had six top-10 finishes at the Masters from 2004-11.

“I know a lot of people back home are staying up late and not sleeping watching the Masters, watching me perform,” Im said through an interpreter. “I want to stay composed again and make sure I finish strong so that I make them happy.”

Ancer, whose best finish at a major is a tie for 16th at the 2016 PGA, also hasn’t seemed bothered by playing the Masters for the first time. He couldn’t explain why.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I like the place, obviously. It’s amazing.”

Frittelli followed his 7-under 65 in the first round with a 73. He said he focused on gaining “clarity” Friday night and, by Saturday, he didn’t feel any nerves. Frittelli planned to do some more mental drills Saturday night and possibly Sunday in preparation for the final round.

His plan is to be aggressive and go for the win.

“It’s just a golf tournament, isn’t it?” Frittelli said. "We’re out there playing golf. Luckily there’s no fans. That definitely plays into sort of, I guess, my side because D.J. and all the guys that have been doing this for 15 years are more comfortable with that.

“Definitely going to take advantage of that, and why not go for it? There’s going to be a few times in your career that you’ll be in contention, so it’s pointless laying up and trying to play for a top 5 or something.”

Here’s hoping Im, Ancer and Smith take a similar approach. Johnson almost surely is going to win - he was my pretournament pick to do so - but at least the four international players chasing him can make it fun. And if one of them somehow pulls off a victory, they’ll be a legend.

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