Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 15, 2020

A Dominating Performance, But Not By DeChambeau

One assumes many sportswriters whose job includes covering professional golf already had their tournament wrap-up stories written before Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus struck the ceremonial first tee shots of this year’s pandemic-delayed Masters early Thursday morning. After all, in the wake of his victory at September’s U.S. Open the conventional wisdom was that Bryson DeChambeau would simply overpower venerable Augusta National with his gargantuan tee shots, turning the classic old course into little more than a pitch-and-putt layout. Early in the week other golfers who had seen DeChambeau playing practice rounds reported he was launching drives of nearly 400 yards. Surely the rest of the field was making the trip to Georgia for the sole purpose of being extras in the story of DeChambeau’s changing the game of golf forever.

Any doubts this was the tale that was about to unfold were dismissed when the demigod himself announced that he viewed the course as a par 67, five shots lower than its scorecard, because of his superior length and overall greatness. But golf is no different than any other sport in that there is a reason why they actually play the four rounds of a major championship rather than proceeding directly to the trophy – or in the case of the Masters, the green jacket – presentation. DeChambeau’s workout and protein shake regimen apparently left him no time for reading anything other than predictions of his imminent victory, or he might have stumbled upon the ancient words of the Old Testament that “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

His promised dominance of Augusta National ended before it began on Thursday, when after starting his round on the back nine with three straight pars, an errant drive into the trees on the par-5 13th hole led to a double-bogey 7. Because fate has a sense of humor, the disaster struck on the shortest par-5 on the golf course, a hole that DeChambeau had been expected to make look antiquated and sad. He would add a triple-bogey on Friday and, after barely making the cut to advance to the weekend, another double during Sunday’s final round. The three “others” in PGA Tour scoring parlance were offset by just one eagle, which came in the final round when DeChambeau was far from contention. But surely the harshest blow to a player whose ego is the size of the Goodyear blimp came when he was outscored in that Sunday walk by his playing partner, 63-year-old Bernhard Langer. The 1985 and 1993 Masters champion who became the oldest player to make the cut in tournament history when he did so with a shot to spare, turned in a 1-under par 71, two strokes better than DeChambeau for the day and one better for the week, despite finishing with the shortest average driving distance in the field.

The second lesson to be drawn from this, after the obvious one about learning when to shut up, is that, as every weekend hacker knows, golf is a multi-faceted game. Success, especially at the highest level of the sport, requires achieving relative mastery over all aspects of it in the varying conditions one can face over the four days of a tournament. In the end, Langer did that better than DeChambeau despite the latter’s distance advantage, and no one in the field did it better than Dustin Johnson.

Despite being sidelined for a time with COVID-19, the 36-year-old Johnson had enjoyed a resume-boosting 2020 even before driving down Magnolia Lane at the start of the week. He won the Travelers Championship in June to extend his streak of consecutive PGA Tour seasons with a victory to thirteen. He blew away the field at the Northern Trust, the Tour’s first FedEx Cup Playoffs event, shooting 30-under par and winning by 11 strokes. He then finished the 2019-20 season with a victory at the Tour Championship, all of which was more than enough to propel him to the top of the world rankings.

But major championships have brought Johnson more than a little heartache over the years. He missed a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship when he incurred a penalty on the 72nd hole for grounding his club in a fairway bunker. A three-putt on the final green at Chambers Bay cost him another playoff chance and handed the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth. Even when he won the following year at Oakmont, he had to absorb a draconian penalty when USGA officials determined that his ball had moved as he addressed a putt during the final round. At this year’s Masters though, Johnson was the class of the field from tee to green and from start to finish.

He was part of a three-way tie for the lead after opening with a 7-under 65, a Thursday score matched by Paul Casey and Dylan Fritelli. He was one of five golfers atop a crowded leader board at the tournament’s midpoint, before another 65 on Saturday sent him into the final round alone in first and four shots clear of his closest competitor. A couple of early bogeys briefly cut his lead down to a single stroke, but a brilliant tee shot at the par-3 6th set up a birdie that steadied him, and four more birdies over the final dozen holes steadily enlarged his lead. When he tapped in for a par at the last Johnson had finished the tournament at 20-under par, two shots better than any previous Masters champion. While softer course conditions in November left Augusta National more accommodating than is usually the case in April, Johnson demonstrated that all aspects of his game were in top form by recording just four bogeys, also a tournament record.

Long known for his unflappability and stoicism on the course, Johnson revealed just how important winning his second major and first Masters was when he dissolved into tears during his post-tournament interview with Amanda Balionis of CBS. It was a reminder that even without fans present, something that was especially noticeable at a tournament famous for the roars echoing from Amen Corner up to the clubhouse, the Masters remains a holy grail for every golfer good enough to make the field. Had they been there eight and ten deep as usual, fans would have seen a record-setting performance. In fact, Johnson played Augusta National as if par were only 67. Only he didn’t boast about it, before or after.

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