Only once the last putt dropped and the scar tissue dissolved did Dustin Johnson finally allow a smile, and later a few tears, to crack his stone-like expression. For this record-breaking Masters victory, on a day when his commanding lead almost vanished in an early twist, was not just affirmation of his status as the world’s best player but an exorcism of the past. The chastening surrenders – imploding at Pebble Beach; choking at Chambers Bay; the more recent US Open and PGA Championships when the trophy melted through his fingers – that led Johnson to hide his disappointment behind a deadpan gaze. His dominant career, in spite of such immense success, and even with a sole major victory in 2016, had always been caveated by those four occasions when he squandered a 54-hole lead.
That changed cathartically on Sunday as the American leant on every last drop of mental fortitude during an anxious front-nine to convert his overnight advantage and clinch a maiden Green Jacket. This win might have been made on Saturday when he blitzed the course with near-effortless contempt en route to a 65, but it was hard-earned on a Sunday when his resolve was repeatedly called into question as those old haunts of fate veered to the fore.
“I tried not to watch the leaderboard,” he said afterwards. “I made a great shot at six and made birdie and then I settled down. It was a tough day – always tough on the final day of a major. The Masters is the biggest tournament. It’s the one I wanted to win most. I’m proud of the way I handled myself.”
Few had expected Johnson to train-wreck his own procession this time, such had been his imperiousness all week, but within the first hour his lead was halved; a nervous three-putt from the fringe at four followed by a hack from the fairway bunker and another bogey at the fifth. Meanwhile, Cameron Smith, the impressive if unfavoured Australian, surged into the closing gap with consecutive birdies. And at an eerily somnolent Augusta, deprived of patrons by the pandemic, the echoes of former unravellings came sharply into focus.
Those painful memories, though, have taught Johnson to master the tumult of one’s own thoughts. This version of him – mature, consistent, implacable – is far removed from the hungrily naive twenty-something who collapsed so abysmally at the US Open a decade ago. And while his nerves were still audible, his response was bold and then emphatic. A fantastic birdie at the tricky sixth backed up by a calm dismantling of the par-5 eighth – a fundamental aspect of his success week-long – and the cushion was restored.
Much has been made of Johnson’s anodyne character, the walls he’s built and general disregard of the outside world, be it in victory or defeat. But from within that sanctuary, as Smith and Sungjae Im stuttered – the latter attempting to become the first winning debutant since 1979 – Johnson strode through Amen Corner unscathed.
After a fine par save at the awkward 11th, he pumped the air with his fist – and perhaps then, a man so aggressively opposed to outward displays of emotion, knew nothing could stop him. The final obstacle, the par-3 12th, where Tiger Woods seized the lead last year and crumbled so astonishingly earlier today, was negotiated with sheer nonchalance.
A four-shot lead re-established, Johnson then recaptured the exquisite form that had propelled him to such a firm lead in this tournament. With his driver unshackled and screeching in miniature explosions, the 36-year-old picked apart fairways and putted with the subtlety that belies his powerful approach. A hat-trick of birdies at 13, 14 and 15 brought another fist pump and the loping swagger back to his shoulders. The procession had now well and truly begun, but even then, Johnson did not afford himself a smile.
And so, a Masters tournament that had begun under such strangely unique circumstances, with Thursday’s rain and autumn conditions leaving the course sodden and substantially vulnerable, ended in a rather more predictable fashion. And perhaps the only true surprise came in the lack of recognisable challengers. Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm, who shared the lead with Johnson heading into the weekend, fell victim to the National’s firmer greens and greedier rough on Saturday. Rory McIlroy, whose 69 briefly had him flicker into contention, was always racing in vain to fan the embers after another wretched first round.
Special mention should be paid to Smith, though. He finished with a 69, and although that left him five shots back of Johnson, the 27-year-old becomes the first person in history to finish with four rounds in the sixties. This was his second top-five in four appearances at Augusta, and his threat will not be overlooked in years to come.
For a wearisome Woods, who was already well out of contention coming into the final day, his defence will instead be remembered for a harrowing episode at the 12th hole. The deceiving par-3 was his gateway to victory 18 months ago when Francesco Molinari’s ball dribbled into Rae’s Creek. This time, it brought Woods thudding to the bed of the leaderboard, finding the water twice with his approach and then inexplicably again from the back bunker. A 10 was the five-time winner’s highest single score on any hole at Augusta, and a jolting reminder that, no matter how great, its virtue is always entwined with peril. Five birdies in the closing six holes, though, epitomised why he is such a familiar champion at Augusta and beyond.
Without fans to roar around the 18th green, members, friends and rivals alike filled the void to congratulate Johnson. Born little over an hour away in South Carolina, he is a popular winner in these parts, and at last the happiness chipped away at the granite competitor, the emotions flooding in gently as he welled up on the most famous walk of his career. His final score of 268 was the all-time scoring record, surpassing Woods’ epochal victory in 1997; the man who’d place the Green Jacket onto Johnson’s shoulders in Butler’s Cabin shortly afterwards.
Johnson had to wait for this victory for longer than anybody anticipated and, while it is tempting to paint it as a new dawn, really it is just a result of natural, battle-hardened progression. For so long, his major haul was derided as paltry. Perhaps, for a player of his sustained prowess, even now it still is. But while Johnson has never been one to dwell on the past, before his juggernaut rolls into next year, time will freeze his grin at Augusta – for there has never been a better moment to revel in the present.