In the most unique Masters tournament of our lifetime, Xander Schauffele had 71 yards left into the 15th green during Thursday’s opening round. It was a delicate shot which called for Schauffele to carry the ball at least 70 yards due to the slope of the green that feeds directly into a pond that guards the hole. Any shot with the least amount of spin that didn’t travel 64 yards would surely roll back into the water. Schauffele’s shot travelled 63 yards with just a touch of check spin and every Masters junkie sat patiently waiting for Xander’s rock to be baptised. Then, somehow, it stopped. At that moment, I knew the 2020 vintage of the Masters would be unlike any other Masters before. The single wedge shot from 71 yards showed us that Augusta National in November is a completely different beast than it is in April. This was a course we’ve never seen before, left without many of its defenses due to the soft and wet conditions.
The game of golf is meant to be played on turf that is firm and fast. These conditions accentuate the contours of the land and will typically separate those who are playing great from those who are playing well. Soft conditions can turn a golf course into a dartboard for the world’s best players, and that’s what Augusta National was for Dustin Johnson this week as he broke the tournament record with a blazing 20-under par.
Johnson wasn’t the only one making history, as Australia’s Cameron Smith became the first player to card four rounds in the 60s, with scores of 67, 68, 69, 69, good enough to tie for second place with Korean wunderkind Sungjae Im. Another fun fact: no player had ever shot 65 or better twice in the same Masters until Dustin Johnson did so this week with 65s on Thursday and Saturday.
This should come as no surprise but much like Lambeau Field, Augusta National has a SubAir system to suck the water moisture out of the greens and parts of the fairway to maintain a playable firm surface should it rain. But the SubAir isn’t on every fairway, and it’s certainly not in the rough where pre-Masters favorite Bryson DeChambeau lost a ball after his drive found some thicker-than-usual rough just off the 4th fairway. Bryson didn’t handle the lost ball well. He took a quick ride on the Bogey Train after losing the ball in the rough and was never really a factor in the tournament after that.
Imperfections were a welcome surprise to many. Nobody put it better than GOLF Magazine’s Alan Shipnuck who tweeted “It’s a golf course, not a museum — it’s OK to have some wear and tear.” This wear and tear was an especially welcome change of pace on the 12th green which had some lovely brown patches. Had it not been for the septuple-bogey 10 made by Tiger, no doubt our fondest footnote of the 12th hole for the 2020 Masters would have been it’s spotty (almost bare in some spots?) putting surface.
For all the talk of this November Masters needing an asterisk, we need to spend more time celebrating Johnson’s historic win and realizing he did so by showing off the full arsenal of the skills that have made him the best player alive. Yes, Dustin Johnson can absolutely melt the ball off the tee and did so this week hitting several drives well over the 320-yard mark, but he controlled his ball completely. He hit 84 percent of his greens in regulation while the field averaged 66 percent. He made just 4 bogeys all week. He hit 86 percent of his fairways over the weekend. It was complete dominance of not just the other players, but also the course as it was presented in November conditions.
Remember Xander’s 15th hole approach on Thursday? Well, Johnson had 107 yards on Sunday, a clean but dicey lie in the fairway, and the pressure of the Masters to deal with. And Johnson didn’t flinch. He dead-armed a wedge 106 yards and made the subsequent 7-footer for birdie. It may not sound difficult, but it was a tough, tough shot. British Open champion Stewart Cink painted the picture quite nicely for the folks at home with this tweet:
In the end, it wasn’t the Augusta National many have come to know and love. It was a different course, with different grass to fit the season, and conditions that changed the way the best players navigated the course. In the end the November 2020 Masters gave us a great champion in Dustin Johnson. We also got a new look at a golf course that might not look as good in her winter coat as she does in her April dress, but there’s something to be said for variety.
Can’t wait until April 8th, 2021 to do it all again.