Dustin Johnson didn't know he was winning the Masters going away

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The winner’s walk up the 18th fairway on a Masters Sunday is one of the great processionals in sports. Hell, it might rank right up there with royal weddings and astronaut parades. Thousands of fans standing, cheering as you take the last few steps toward immortality.

So when Dustin Johnson, winner of the 2020 Masters, walked up the hill toward his destiny and heard nothing at all, it was … a little strange. Sure, there were only a few hundred people ringing the green — members and their guests, Augusta National workers done with their shifts, media and family — but they were silent, as if waiting for a cue.

And then the three guys standing up in the scoreboard started clapping, and everyone around the green followed in their wake. It wasn’t deafening like when Tiger wins, it wasn’t earth-rumbling like when Phil does … but it did the job.

It was right around that moment that Johnson turned to his brother-slash-caddy Austin and asked, “Where do we stand?” In other words, how far ahead were they?

Yes, Dustin Johnson, who set a new scoring record at Augusta, who buried the field by five strokes, who’s the first player to get to -20 in the Masters … had no idea on the 72nd hole if he was actually winning or not.

It’s a vintage DJ anecdote, perfectly in tune with the guy who, until a few hours before, was far more known for the majors he’d let get away than the one, singular, that he’d won. Six times, including Sunday, Johnson had entered the final day of a major with the lead. Five times, he’d come up short, a victim of everything from 72nd-hole misfires to bizarre rules violations to a performance for the ages by someone else.

Masters golf champion Dustin Johnson wipes away a tear while being interviewed following his victory Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Augusta, Ga.(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Masters golf champion Dustin Johnson wipes away a tear while being interviewed following his victory. (AP)

So when he started to wobble early in the round, bogeying the fourth and fifth holes to allow the field to draw within a single stroke, it wasn’t hard to start thinking here we go again. Johnson had never blown a four-stroke 54-hole lead before, but, hey, first time for everything, right?

Something clicked this time, something broke differently.

“Even bogeying [the fifth hole], I didn't let it bother me,” Johnson said. “Then hit a great shot into 6, made a birdie. That kind of, obviously, helped the nerves a little bit. From there on out, I felt like I played really solid.” He did, going 5-under over 10 holes — including a three-birdies-in-three-holes door slam from 13 to 15 — that led right to that sort-of-triumphant walk.

Johnson is the anti-Bryson DeChambeau, a player who doesn’t obsess over the technical minutiae of the game but instead just, you know, swings the damn club. You can argue with the technique, but right now, you can’t argue with the results.

“See ball, hit ball, see putt, hole putt, go to the next,” is how Rory McIlroy described Johnson’s style earlier in the week, not unkindly. “He makes the game ... look so simple.”

Johnson’s got that demeanor — soft drawl, hangdog eyes, loping walk — that makes it seem like he’s not really trying all that hard, even when he is. It’s a mindset that’s served him well given the many ways he’s lost, badly, at this game.

“He’s like an NFL quarterback who throws an interception on his first series, or a cornerback who got burned for 65 yards and a touchdown — you can’t let that stuff dwell,” Johnson’s swing coach Claude Harmon III said alongside the putting green where Johnson was about to receive his green jacket. “He’s so good at putting all that aside.”

“He doesn’t throw clubs or curse at me, because the guy’s a class act,” Austin Johnson said. “We’re Southern boys. We talk slow, so people think we don’t care.”

Dustin and Austin grew up an hour away from Augusta, in Columbia, South Carolina. They spent their youth driving golf balls in every direction, pounding thousands of balls into the lake beside their grandparents’ house and staying so late at the driving range that they’d be the ones shutting off the lights.

“Always around the putting green growing up, it was putts to win the Masters,” Johnson said after his victory, size 42-long green jacket on his shoulders. “As a kid, 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.”

This hurls the “underachiever” label into Rae’s Creek; nobody who claims a Masters, a U.S. Open and the world No. 1 is an underachiever. The question now is how many more majors Johnson can stack before he calls it a career. In a line worthy of Yogi Berra, Johnson assessed the difficulty of bringing home golf’s biggest prizes:

“The first major's the hardest,” he said, “but then I would say the second one is just as hard.”

Never change, DJ.

Oh, and as for that question he asked his brother walking up 18? He was serious, yes — he hadn’t looked at a leaderboard since the 7th green — but he had a pretty good idea that a 68 was going to be tough to beat.

When Austin told him that he was five strokes up, Johnson said, simply, “I think we can handle this.”

And then he did.

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