Masters 2020: Earnestly likable Dustin Johnson becomes a champion in title and spirit

AUGUSTA, Ga. — When Dustin Johnson stepped to the first tee on Sunday morning with a four-shot lead at the 2020 Masters, he received only a smattering of applause. Various members of Augusta National Golf Club along with their spouses and some volunteers clapped as the No. 1 player on the planet tried to lock up the second major of his career.

Up on the veranda beyond the big oak tree that shields the clubhouse from the first tee, a group of waiters and waitresses wearing green Masters-logo masks oversaw the tee shot. They added to the applause. Johnson bumped his brother Austin’s fist as the final round of the 84th Masters began.

Two-hundred and fifty minutes later, Dustin again bumped Austin’s fist. They were on the 18th tee box, and Dustin had just obliterated his tee shot. Over the preceding four hours, his lead had increased by just one shot, but you could fit the World Golf Hall of Fame in the chasm between leading by five with one to go and leading by four with 18 holes left. They knew Dustin was about to add Augusta National to his now-growing collection of major championships.

There are a million reasons for which one roots for an athlete or team in the sports we love. Some are vapid, many are legitimate. The unifier is that everyone loves a good story.

Dustin Johnson — perhaps somewhat improbably (if you followed the beginning of his career) — checks a lot of the “easy to cheer” boxes. On Sunday, he may have checked the rest of them.

The wheels wobbled early as Johnson chunked a chip at the 2nd hole into a bunker before recovering for par. He made two bogeys in his first five hole and saw his lead thin to one stroke entering the 6th. Memories of the four 54-hole leads D.J. has lost at majors started to creep into play.

“There was doubts in my mind, just because I had been there,” said Johnson after the round. “I’m in this position a lot of times. Like, ‘When am I going to have the lead and finish off the golf tournament or finish off a major?'”

D.J. recovered with birdies at No. 6 and No. 8, taking a two-stroke lead to the second nine. As he sauntered from the 9th green to the 10th tee, a fellow golf scribe cackled. “Have you ever tried to walk like that?” he asked, pointing at D.J. “You can’t do it. You’re born with that.”

Johnson is a rarity in professional sports. Folks feel for him because of the heartbreak he’s experienced over so many years.

Take your pick between Johnson grounding his club at the 2010 PGA Championship, the ghastly 82 in the finale at the 2010 U.S. Open and falling down the stairs at the 2017 Masters. Oh, there’s others. They’re all so earnestly sad.

But people — as the comment about his gait suggests — also want to be him. Rarely do you get empathy and idolization in equivalent doses. The amalgamation is an oddity, but it makes him an easy player for whom to cheer on.

So does his greatness. D.J. picked his spots, let birdies come to him at Nos. 13-15, and lit up the second nine with a 33. He closed in 68.

Nobody in the history of the Masters had ever touched 20 under on the leaderboard. He did it with a birdie on the 15th green. As he walked to the 16th, he looked back at the big leaderboard overlooking the prior hole. Volunteers had been working those manually-operated boards all week, maybe more for the ritual of it all than for the information itself.

They had the slots for Cameron Smith open, about to put in the numbers of D.J.’s closest competitor all day. He turned away before they did. He didn’t want to know. He wanted to stay in his world.

Johnson has transformed himself from someone with the reputation of a blockhead to a widely accepted clear thinker when it comes to how to work golf courses and how to mentally prepare for the psychological warfare of major championships. His physical transformation has been less obvious — he’s always been gifted — but he’s truly developed mentally. It’s yet another reason you want to see him succeed.

“He’s switched on, more so than he lets on, more so than everyone in the media thinks,” said Rory McIlroy, who finished T5 and nine back of Johnson. “I’ll just put it that way. He’s smarter than you think.” 

Johnson had a putt at No. 18 to get to 21 under. He missed it and “settled” for 20 under, the new Masters scoring record by two strokes. That one additional birdie would’ve given him the all-time major championship scoring mark. Instead, he’s tied for that record, too.

When D.J. walked up to the ball, which was at tap-in range, he fumbled in his pocket for a marker. Normally, the soon-to-be-champion will mark as everyone else in the group putts out. But he couldn’t find his mark, so he just tapped in with Sungjae Im still left to putt.

Given the circumstances, it was a low-key humorous golf moment. He’d rather putt out and not have the final spotlight than sit there for 15 seconds trying to find his marker. He plays golf, in some ways (although not many), the way we play golf.

The term idea of Dustin Johnson breaking down normally means something different than it did on Sunday.

After Tiger Woods held the green jacket for D.J. to slide into, the new Masters champion took the stage on the practice putting green at Augusta National. The moment took his breath away. A normally-placid D.J. couldn’t find the words and couldn’t find his voice. It was what you want from the champ.

Johnson is not loud nor brazen. One top-10 player told said of him, “There’s nothing wrong with letting your clubs doing the talking.”

That’s what D.J. did all week at Augusta National. Even in victory, the words never came. 

There is a great irony in this year’s final major. One of the easiest players to root for in the field won a patron-less Masters. You might say he won because there were no patrons, but I’m not sure the man who rolls with the mantra, “I feel the same way, whether the fans are here or not” was going to cough up one of the greatest Masters performances of all time.

Regardless, there is no asterisk on this Masters. Though having patrons would have changed the vibe of the tournament, D.J. would have won this tournament if they’d scraped up Augusta National and replanted it in a bubble out on the Pacific Ocean. Still, it would have been great to see.

“I like having them here,” Johnson said of the patrons. “They bring excitement, especially when they are cheering for you, they can pull you along. I miss them, and hopefully we get to see them in April.” 

D.J. is both a grinder and a dreamer. More traits that are rarely combined. He spoke on Sunday about how he wants to give his maximum work ethic to golf for another decade and see how many of these he can win.

As he walked off the 18th green, Johnson turned to Bubba Watson, a two-time champion who was there to greet him. he said he’d been dreaming of donning the jacket Watson was wearing.

“Growing up, that was all it was, as a kid,” said Johnson, who was born 75 miles away from Augusta National in Columbia, South Carolina. “You dream of playing in the Masters and dream about putting on a green jacket. Still kind of think it’s a dream, but … hopefully, it’s not.”

While nobody was paying attention, Johnson went from being the mid-20s bad boy of golf to one of the most earnest, genuine people in the game. I’m not exactly sure when (or why) the transformation occurred, but it’s remarkable to look back on now.

Here’s Dustin Johnson, whose nihilistic reputation preceded him, completely losing himself when Woods covered him in the green jacket. Speaking poignantly about his kids and his family and how much more it means to have his brother on his bag.

There is a bit of wonder in this one, as if he sometimes cannot believe in his own talent level.

Augusta and Oakmont among 24 PGA Tour wins, though, makes Johnson an all-time great, somebody who engenders adulation for his gifts and his grind, his heartbreak and his hope.

Mostly, D.J. is relatable. Despite his having earned well into the nine figures over the course of his career and taking down titles all over the planet, all he wants to do is wake up Monday and go play a great round of golf.

The only unfortunate part about Dustin Johnson winning the 2020 Masters is that there were so few folks there to cheer for him.


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