Even knowing the context, it seemed impossible. History had receipts; courses around the world could attest firsthand; yet as Dustin Johnson stood for judgment on this unique Masters Sunday, there didn’t seem to be any way he could be found guilty of blowing yet another lead, in yet another major.
Sure, the evidence was there. Johnson’s mishaps at major tournaments are something of legend—he came into this week 0-4 when leading after the third round, and with plenty of spoiled comebacks on his résumé. Just this past August, Johnson led the PGA Championship after 54 holes, only to see Collin Morikawa come sailing past him with a final-round 66. In 2018, Johnson was tied for the 54-hole lead in the U.S. Open, but couldn’t string together a strong enough finish to outduel Brooks Koepka. In 2015, Johnson missed an eagle putt for the win at the U.S. Open in Chambers Bay, then missed the comeback birdie putt for the tie, losing to Jordan Spieth. And let’s not even talk about the “bunker debacle” at the 2010 PGA Championship.
Then there was his sordid record at Augusta National where, in 2017, Johnson entered as the tournament favorite and no. 1 player in the world, only to slip down a flight of stairs the Wednesday before and then withdraw.
But this time was different. Not because of any material change—Johnson has always been a great golfer, a player whose game mixes power, consistency, and a beauty that even he doesn’t seem to be aware of. Nor was it because of an attitude shift. It’s become somewhat of a cliché to compare Johnson to a robot—unfeeling, unshakeable, unmotivated by human desires—and his Saturday round of 65, which started with an eagle at no. 2, and back-to-back birdies after that, only reinforced that line of thinking. But no, this time was different because of something outside of Johnson’s control: the circumstances.
Johnson entered Sunday with a four-shot lead over Cameron Smith, Sungjae Im, and Abraham Ancer. Guys like Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, and Brooks Koepka were lurking, but had largely faded into the background, as had the inherent pressure those names bring. At 16-under, Johnson was threatening the Masters scoring record (minus-18) before he even teed off in his final round. He looked comfortable around Augusta National all week, never shooting above 70 or making more than two bogeys. As players surged, fell, and suffered fits around him (see: Rahm, Jon), Johnson hardly seemed to notice, spending little time examining leaderboards or discussing other pros’ games in post-round interviews.
That unflinching reserve carried Johnson through a Sunday round that started with more hiccups than he had all of Saturday: a half-hearted drive off the first tee; a chunked third shot on the par-5 second that ended up in the greenside bunker; back-to-back bogeys on nos. 4 and 5 that shrunk his lead to one. But just as Johnson rarely smiles or celebrates, he rarely gets down on himself either. He just lines up, hits, and moves, never lingering on the last shot. Johnson shifted gears at no. 6, made birdie, and got back to even on the day, course-correcting for smooth sailing the rest of the round.
Johnson finished the week at 20-under par, breaking the all-time Masters scoring record and tying the major championship record for lowest tournament under par. His five-shot win was the largest at the Masters since Tiger Woods’s 12-shot victory in 1997. Four years after he got his first major at Oakmont Country Club, he finally seized his second.
“The Masters to me, it’s the biggest tournament. It’s the one I wanted to win the most,” said Johnson, who grew up 75 miles from Augusta in Columbia, South Carolina. “And I’m just very proud of the way I handled myself and the way I finished off the golf tournament.”
In retrospect, it’s pretty fitting that Johnson won the Masters this way, this year. Never before had this tournament been held in November. Never before had it occurred during a pandemic. Never before had it gone on without patrons lining the greens and fairways. Augusta is a mystifying place, but slightly less so when you strip away the magic of the azaleas, the late-afternoon sun, the crowded tee boxes, and the excruciating pressure of the back nine on Sunday. Johnson’s gigantic lead ate into the possibility of a comeback, which we’ve seen time after time—most recently in Tiger Woods’s fifth Masters win last year.
This isn’t to take anything away from Johnson; in fact, his wire-to-wire victory is oddly even more impressive when you factor in all the sacrifices, COVID-19 protocols, and mental gymnastics it took to make this Masters happen in the first place. It’s just to say that, in this tournament unlike any other, in which each player had to make his own momentum, a Johnson victory almost felt preordained.
Heading into this Masters, much of the talk was about change. Would Bryson DeChambeau break the course and force a “Bryson proofing” much in the way Tiger did in 1997? Would one of the many up-and-comers like Matthew Wolff or Collin Morikawa be able to start a new legacy at this tournament? As often happens with Augusta, though, the talk coming out of the tournament will be about histories, and the things that haven’t changed—namely that Dustin Johnson is still the no. 1 golfer in the world.
Johnson was one putt away from recording the lowest tournament score to par of any major champion in history. He had the biggest win at the Masters since 1997 with Woods, who was on hand to give him the green jacket (after an eventful day of his own, which included the first double-digit hole of his career, thanks to Rae’s Creek).
After Johnson tapped in for par on no. 18 and a four-under finish on the day, he had to wait. He waited for Im to wrap up his own par putt, waited to hug his longtime partner, Paulina Gretzky, waited for the applause that was coming from the Augusta members and former champions who lined the walkway hoping to congratulate him. As he stood on the green, Johnson’s brother and caddy, Austin, began tearing up behind him. Paulina welled up too, though her tears were concealed behind sunglasses until she finally met him on the green.
Johnson had to wait again once he got to Butler Cabin; wait for Augusta chairman Fred Ridley to speak about the tournament, wait for Jim Nantz to address Andy Ogletree, this year’s low amateur. But when Johnson finally got his chance to talk out on the 18th green, he smiled a smile of relief, choked back some tears of his own, and showed he was finally, finally, done waiting.