Opinion: Why Dustin Johnson’s formidable Masters lead is no sure thing

AUGUSTA, Ga. — At its beginning, the third round of the 2020 Masters held such tantalizing promise. For the first time ever, the top three players in the world were tied for the lead at the halfway point of this tournament. And right behind them, so many more were lurking, including defending champion Tiger Woods and fan favorite Phil Mickelson (if there were fans this year) and sentimental pick Rory McIlroy, who was putting on an early birdie show and making his move up the leader board.

This wasn’t a golf tournament; this was the starting line of the Daytona 500. Everyone all bunched together, promising a massive dash to the finish.

Then world-ranked No. 1 Dustin Johnson teed off, and within a half hour, he had killed all the suspense. He eagled the par-5 second hole, then birdied No. 3 and No. 4, and all of a sudden his 9-under par score through 36 holes stood at 13-under through 40. He added three more birdies to reach 16-under for 54 holes, four strokes better than a trio of golfers giving immediate chase: Sungjae Im, Abraham Ancer and Cameron Smith.

Jon Rahm, left, and others had been lurking behind Dustin Johnson before the start of the third round, but Johnson has opened up a big lead at the Masters. (Photo: Rob Schumacher, USA TODAY Sports)

Falling by the wayside, just a bit anyway, were Justin Thomas, the world’s third-ranked player who wobbled home with a one-under 71 to fall six shots off Johnson’s pace, and No. 2 Jon Rahm, who lived every hacker’s worst nightmare on the eighth hole by smacking a shot straight into a tree, then watching the ball bounce off the tree and fly into nearby bushes for a double-bogey on a hole he should have birdied. Rahm, playing in the group with Johnson, watching his mastery on every hole, finished with an even par 72 and was seven shots behind Johnson heading into Sunday’s final round.

Said the disconsolate Rahm after his round: “I’m really far back to start tomorrow, that’s all I can say. I’ve got to hope to shoot a miracle score to have a chance.”

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Miracles have occurred before in the final round of the Masters. Big leads have evaporated. McIlroy knows all about that after his epic collapse at the 2011 Masters, shooting 80 in the final round to drop from first to 15th.

He finished Saturday with a fine 5-under 67, but still stood eight shots behind Johnson, in a tie for 10th, when the day ended.

Asked if he was too far back, McIlroy said, “Yeah, eight shots, being a realist here, I just need to go out and shoot a good one tomorrow and see where it puts me, but I have zero thoughts about winning this golf tournament right now.”

Tommy Fleetwood is tied with McIlroy, and feels just about the same way about his chances.

“Unfortunately, D.J.’s playing, but you never know what’s going to happen in a major, and you get sucked into looking at the leaderboard and all you can do is play your best.”

For Thomas, an unfortunate mix of four bogeys and three birdies on the back nine left him with a sour outlook about his prospects for catching Johnson.

“I put myself so far back that going as low as possible is the only thing I can do,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately for all of us chasing D.J., there are no fans or nothing to make that moment even harder, to have the buzz, to have the adrenaline, to have a little bit more pressure put on him that won’t be there this year. So it’s going to take something pretty special for me to have a chance tomorrow, but I know I can do it. It’s just about doing it.”

The same goes for Smith. “He’s got a four-shot lead. Anyone with a four-shot lead is expected to win. You know, there’s going to be plenty of boys firing tomorrow.”

The game’s most popular elder statesmen will be firing too, but they aren't close enough to make much of a difference. Mickelson shot a terrible 79 to fall 18 shots behind Johnson, while Woods ended with an even-par 72 on the day, tied for 20th, 11 shots back.

Johnson, 36, has been in this position before, holding the third-round lead at a major four times before this week. All four times, he has failed to close the deal.

“If I can play like I did today, I think it will break that streak. But there are a lot of really good players right around me,” Johnson said, even if they really aren’t right around him. 

But they are there, and they’re all doing one thing: chasing D.J.

“As we all know, someone can get a good round going,” Johnson warned. “There’s definitely a long way to go.”

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