AUGUSTA, GA. – After shooting a 65 on Saturday to take a four-shot lead at The Masters, Dustin Johnson walked up the hill from the 18th green and ... nothing happened.
This from the space where fists are pumped and family members are hugged.
In the COVID Masters, there was no rope corridor to guide him through the crowd, because there was no crowd. There was no phalanx of security guards, because only members and media were present. So Johnson, after positioning himself to break the all-time scoring record Sunday, wandered alone to the clubhouse, hearing a couple of polite claps.
Which is fitting, because Johnson not only plays a game with which few are familiar, he plays in a strangely casual way. He takes little time before he swings, then launches line drives, making golf look easier than cornhole.
Saturday, he hit every fairway for the first time at Augusta National. After three rounds, he’s at 16 under. The Masters scoring record is 18 under, held by Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth. Johnson tied Spieth for the lowest score after three rounds.
The other three players to play a round of 66 or better at the Masters to take a third-round lead all won easily. Jack Nicklaus shot 64 and won by nine in ’65, Woods shot 65 and won by 12 in ’87, and Ben Hogan shot a 66 and won by five in ’53.
Johnson is trying to conquer a course, Augusta National, that creates lifelong nightmares.
In 2016, Spieth took a nine-shot lead into the back nine Sunday at The Masters, then made a quadruple-bogey 7 at the par-3 12th, hitting two balls into the water and one into the front bunker. Instead of winning a second straight Masters, he finished tied for second.
In 2011, Rory McIlroy led by four going into the final round, snap-hooked his drive on No. 10, made triple bogey and shot an 80. McIlroy has not won a Masters, the missing title in a career grand slam.
On Sunday, will Johnson be defined by his scar tissue or muscle memory?
He might be the most athletic player in golf, a former basketball standout who loves to lift weights. He might be the straightest long driver in the game, the best ball-striker, and one of the best wedge players.
All that could stand between him and his first Masters victory are the head of his putter and the head on his body.
In 2015, Johnson had a 12-foot putt to win the U.S. Open. He three-putted to lose to Spieth.
He took a three-shot lead into the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open and shot an 82.
He lost a chance to be in the playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship when given a two-stroke penalty for playing out of a waste bunker on the 18th hole. He has missed two Masters with weird injuries — hurting his back lifting a jet ski and falling down the stairs at his rental house in Augusta.
“It would mean a lot to win here,” Johnson said. “What a great event. It’s the Masters. It’s a major. I grew up right down the road, so this would be very special to me.”
Growing up in Columbia, S.C., Johnson would practice under the lights at Weed Hills driving range. “Most nights I’d shut the lights out when I was leaving,” he said.
Johnson has never been accused of being a deep thinker. Maybe that will help him. He said he planned to spend Saturday night playing with his kids. He’s hitting the ball remarkably straight on a wet course that keeps balls from running off fairways or across greens.
He should win.
So should have McIlroy in ’11 and Spieth in ’16.
In 1996, Greg Norman took a six-shot lead into the final round and lost by five to Nick Faldo.
What is certain is that Johnson will make some kind of history Sunday.
He’ll either break the scoring record and win, or establish himself as one of the most disappointing closers in major championship history.
“If I can keep giving myself good looks at birdie,” he said, “I think I’ll have a good day.”