AUGUSTA, Ga. — There’s only one person who can beat Dustin Johnson in the final round of this 84th Masters and that’s his putter, and that’s highly unlikely to happen.
Now you may argue that Johnson’s putter is not, in fact, a person but that is not correct. All putters are people, and they have feelings, and they should be treated with the respect they earn. Bob Jones, native son of Atlanta, who started this event, had a putter named Jane. (Calamity Jane on her birth certificate.) Jack Nicklaus won events with a putter named White Fang. We don’t know the name of Johnson’s putter, beyond Spider X. (It’s a TaylorMade product.) But here’s the larger point:
Dustin Johnson’s ball-striking talent is not going AWOL, Sunday at the Masters. Neither will his chipping game or his pitching game or his bunker game. His three rounds are 65, 70 and 65. The Saturday 65, seven under, was a clinic. He hit all 14 fairways and missed only a pair of greens.
Andy Ogletree, the U.S. Amateur champion, introduced a spectacular word to the Tiger Woods canon. Woods’s shots, Ogletree said, have a lot of “integrity.” Can we bring this fine word, the opposite of Tiger’s hollow, into wider circulation? Johnson, all week, has hit shot after shot that oozed integrity. His Saturday 65 was nothing but integrity.
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The only thing that could hold him back — prevent him for breaking 70 — would be balky short putting. Under Sunday pressure, over the years, Johnson has hit more than his share of slice putts from 10 feet and in, especially on left-to-righters, putts that actually start right of the hole, have poor pace and finish well right. At the Tour level, that could mean six inches. Though sometimes it’s much more.
But with a four-shot lead here over his three closest pursuers, none of whom have won a major or even contended for one, Johnson’s putting bugaboo is not likely to show up on Sunday. Also, these Augusta greens, at this November Masters, are not as fast or hard-breaking as they typically are in spring. They’re not as fast as the Oakmont greens were in June 2016, when he was able to win the U.S. Open on relentlessly good driving and iron play.
This observation does not have the Brandel Chamblee stamp of authenticity, but it appears to your correspondent that Johnson has made a minor adjustment with his putting stroke by which he has the heel up a smidgen more than he used to, and the toe a smidgen more down.
“I try to get my hands a little bit higher so I don’t pull it,” Johnson said Saturday night. “It’s kind of something that I always try to do.”
Talking about golf has never been Johnson’s greatest strength. Playing golf has been.
He grew up in Columbia, S.C., about an hour down the road from here, and as a kid the Masters was always the tournament he dreamed about winning, more than any other.
“I hit a lot of golf balls at Weed Hill,” he said of a Columbia driving range. “They had lights on the range and most nights I would shut the lights off when I was leaving. So definitely have a lot of good memories from the driving range.”
Interesting last sentence. Interesting avoidance of the word I.
There were 200 or so people following Johnson on Saturday, at this patron-free Masters. You could put Johnson’s caddie-brother, Austin, in that group, as Dustin is often the first off the tee, marching ahead of the others, with his long strides and silky gait. Among the spectators on Saturday was Paulina Gretzky, daughter of the hockey legend and the mother of Johnson’s two sons, Tatum and River.
Every spectator stands out at this year’s Masters, or can, and Gretzky, dressed for a stylish yoga class, stood out most particularly. At one point, she positioned herself behind two uniformed scorers when she realized she was in plain view of Patrick Cantlay as he stood over a putt. Johnson played with, and way outplayed, Cantlay and Jon Rahm on Saturday.
There is no elite golfer who tees it up lower with the driver than Johnson, who averaged nearly 310 yards per drive on Saturday, when the fairways were still soft from Thursday’s soaking rain. There was never a moment of stress for him. There never is.
After smashing one of his patented cut drives on 18, he turned to Austin and said, “Did it hit soft?” It hit soft. His ball stayed out of the menace that are the fairway bunkers on 18. When he talks, he makes his words count. When he spits, it’s a tight brown stream. (He’s a discreet chewer.) When he’s disappointed that a beautiful lag put didn’t drop, he assumes a catcher’s squat. When he’s excited, he makes a fist and raises it almost to mid-chest.
His Sunday round begins at 9:29 a.m., with Sungjae Im and Abraham Ancer. That’s an unfortunate time (way too early) to start a last round of a Masters, but all things considered that’s a nice problem to have. Expect to see Johnson raise his right hand in a fist almost to mid-chest sometime on Sunday. That’s how you know he’s excited.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com.