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The Good Life

Can Johnson Repeat at The Masters?

Only three pros have claimed the legendary green jacket in back-to-back years
| By Jeff Williams | From Dustin Johnson and Paulina Gretzky, March/April 2021
Can Johnson Repeat at The Masters?
Photo/Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When Dustin Johnson arrived at Augusta National Golf Club last November for the strangest Masters of all, he strangely wasn’t the center of attention. Yes, he was the No. 1 player in the world, and by a comfortable margin. Yes, he had  won three tournaments in 2020, marking the 13th consecutive year that he had won on the PGA Tour. Yes, he certainly was part of the conversation about who could win the most precious of the majors. 

But Bryson DeChambeau’s brute force assault on the game, which culminated in winning the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in September, was almost a social media shouting match when it came to the Masters. Would he bludgeon Augusta National to its knees? Would his 350-yard drives make the storied course little more than a pitch and putt? Would power finally overcome finesse and determine the winner?

With this in mind, three-time Masters champion and CBS golf commentator Nick Faldo was patrolling the practice range at Augusta before the tournament. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, all media were kept well apart from the players, but because of Faldo’s past champion status, he was allowed direct contact. The talk on the range that day was DeChambeau’s smash-and-grab strategy.

“There was so much buzz with Bryson DeChambeau,” says Faldo, who walked down the range to where Johnson was hitting, sparking a conversation with the golfer. “He says, ‘What’s going on out there?’ And I say, ‘Oh, DeChambeau smashed it 360 through the air.’ And he says, ‘I can do that but I like to dink it, dink my little 320-yard fade. I’d rather fade it than draw it. I’ve got a longer driver. I can hit it 340.’ ”

In other words, the man with ice in his veins and flame in his game was totally unfazed by the cacophony surrounding DeChambeau. Johnson was there to do one thing, win the Masters, and when Faldo turned to Austin Johnson, Dustin’s brother and caddie, for a little insight, he got a bit of a surprise.

“When I spoke to his brother, I said ‘tell me what’s his key?’ And he says,  ‘He’s the best feel player on tour.’ That’s a pretty good statement because you’ve got Phil and Tiger, many players have great touch. Dustin has a little different way of chipping. He’s got a weird little way of picking the club up [on the backswing] but he’s able to drop the club on the ball with big hands, good touch, great touch. Of course, he can putt.”

When this Masters was done, played in the fall without its patrons whose roars define this special major as much as the azaleas and the lightning greens, it was Dustin Johnson who donned the green jacket, one placed on his shoulders by none other than Tiger Woods. Woods had won his fifth Masters in 2019 in one of the most emotional victories ever witnessed in the game, the exact polar opposite of the scene that surrounded Johnson.

But make no mistake, this Masters was special, and it was clearly special to Johnson. He had won with a record 72-hole score of 268, 20-under par, smashing the record co-owned by Woods and Jordan Spieth. He had won wire-to-wire, shooting 65-70-65-68. And DeChambeau? He went away quietly, finishing in a tie for 34th, 18 shots behind Johnson, who “dinked” it around Augusta with supreme mastery.

Johnson’s steely resolve on the course, where you can’t tell whether he’s 10-under par or 10 over,  melted a bit after this landmark win. There was a tear in his eye at the green jacket ceremony, a tear in the Butler Cabin interview, emotions that were entirely genuine and deep. 

“It means so much to me,” said Johnson at the time, who came into the Masters with just one major to his credit, the 2016 U.S. Open. “It means so much to my family, Paulina, the kids. They know it’s something that I’ve always been dreaming about and it’s why I work so hard. You know, I put in a lot of work off the golf course, on the golf course, and I think it’s just, it’s something that you push yourself for. 

“It still feels like a dream,” Johnson said. “As a kid, you’re dreaming about winning the Masters, having Tiger put the green jacket on you. I’m here and what a great feeling it is. I couldn’t be more excited.”

Jim Nantz, who has been CBS’ voice of the Masters since the mid-’90s and calling shots there since the ’80s, found this eerie Masters to still have produced something of the highest quality both in the nature of its champion and the nature of his win.

“In the end, in its own way, it was emotional and spectacular,” says Nantz. “I think everyone loved what proved to be in many respects the coronation, the validation  of  Dustin’s massive
abilities. Even more than that, his reach and his fan base at least quadrupled because he let us see into his heart and soul. We had a window into Dustin that we didn’t have before. That’s part of the magic of the Masters. It’s always emotional.”

Faldo found that Johnson’s flatlining demeanor might have been just what he needed to win this oddly silent Masters. Johnson’s history of failure in major tournaments, having lost four of them when leading or tied for the lead going into the final round, just doesn’t seem to stick in his brain. “As he was walking up 18, I was thinking this quality of letting everything run off your back is very enviable because he doesn’t carry much scar tissue,” says Faldo. “And we know that’s the hardest thing in our game and probably many sports. You know, poor results or shocking experiences, that chips away at you. But he has this ability to deal with today. He couldn’t care less about how he played a month ago and not thinking two weeks down the line. He’s pretty darn good at being in present time.”

Also, not playing in front of the typically massive adoring crowds, gaining energy from them or even deflecting the pressure of the moment on them, didn’t seem to have any effect.

“I thought the hardest thing, as a player it’s in your heart, in your mind that it’s the Masters, and your heart is pumping, but you can’t deflect it,” says Faldo. “It’s kind of nice to look at the gallery and get a bit of their support, that deflection. But when it’s just you and your caddie dealing with all the emotion, all the intensity, wow.

“Then a guy, who on the outside couldn’t care less and I’ll just get on with it, ends up being a great champion.”

As the 2021 Masters approaches, in its traditional April dates, it will only be five months since Johnson won at Augusta. There will be talk of other players with a chance to win. DeChambeau will undoubtedly be looked at as a favorite once again. PGA champion Collin Morikawa, powerful and precise John Rahm, a healthy Brooks Koepka, proven contender Xander Schauffele, ever-present four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, upstart Tyrell Hatton, all will be getting significant action in the sportsbooks.

Only three players have ever won the Masters in back-to-back years: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Faldo. Could Johnson make that trio into a quartet?

“He is a really good candidate to try and defend and join the club I’m in with Jack, me and Tiger,” says Faldo. “He’s got a damn good chance of doing that. It’s like, ‘I won four months ago, so what? Here I go again.’ ” v

Golf

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