By the time Dustin Johnson reached Augusta National’s second nine, the place we all say the tournament is meant to start, everything had already been decided.
The 36-year-old who grew up a short drive away in Columbia, South Carolina, held a commanding lead over promising but mostly unproven players Cameron Smith and Sunjae Im, leaving the final holes, typically the stage for incredible theatre and indelible moments that will be replayed for years to come, to become a merely ceremonial exercise.
To be honest, if you had to rank the last 20 Masters by Sunday drama, yesterday’s tournament would be near or at the bottom of that list. And let me tell you, as a golf fanatic who lives for majors coming down to the wire, I loved every minute of it.
Johnson’s hall of fame career has been plagued by questions of what he could have been rather than what he is, a stigma largely coming from the many majors he let slip away. Yes, he did win the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont to claim his first major, but any conversation around the 6’4” bomber always came back to the opportunities he missed.
It started over a decade ago when Johnson imploded in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. One of the most exciting young players at the time, he built a three-shot lead over Graeme McDowell and looked completely in control during a Saturday 66. However, just a few holes into Sunday’s final round, Johnson had embarrassingly melted down with a rash of poor swings and disastrous decisions, all leading to an 11-over 82.
And then, two months later at the PGA Championship, Johnson led by one stroke with one hole to play. After a drive well right into the waste bunker, he scrambled for his bogey to get into a three-way playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson. That was only until a rules official notified him that he had grounded his club in the bunker on the final hole, violating a local rule and adding two strokes to his final tally.
It wasn’t just that Johnson lost those two major championships. Hundreds of inexperienced players have worked their way into contention only to struggle, and nobody can blame them for it.
What people saw in Johnson was a man with the physical gifts to win as many major championships as he wanted, but the mental shortcomings that would prevent him from doing so. The media labeled him as unintelligent based on his monotone voice and straightforward viewpoint of the game. The phrase “you can’t trust Dustin” became prominent among onlookers who wanted to anoint Johnson as the game’s next dominating presence but couldn’t bringt themselves to pull the trigger. Not based on his track record.
For years, that line of thinking was confirmed. Johnson racked up victories in PGA Tour events and solidified a top 5 world ranking, but not unlike Greg Norman of the 80’s and 90’s, he lost in every possible fashion.
There was the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay where Johnson shared the lead heading into the final round. Down by one stroke on the final hole, he set himself up with a 12-foot eagle putt that would have given him the victory over Jordan Spieth. He raced it by a few feet and then carelessly missed the comebacker. Showing almost no emotion, he tapped in for par, signed his scorecard and briefly talked to the press about how it was just a golf tournament. A month later, he led the Open Championship at St. Andrews through 36 holes and faded away with a pair of 76’s over the weekend. Whether he came agonizingly close or faded away, Johnson never seemed certain of himself.
How could someone with that much talent take losing so easily?
It’s true that much of the conversation was vanquished when Johnson won the 2016 U.S. Open in trying conditions — the USGA had botched another rules situation and saddled Johnson with the possibility of one stroke being added to his score as he battled down the stretch — but we all still wanted more.
We wanted him to dominate the 2017 Masters after he had cruised to three consecutive PGA Tour victories leading up to the tournament. Before he got to the first tee, he fell down a flight of stairs and never even played.
We wanted him to take control of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills when he collected a four-stroke lead through 36 holes. He shot 77 in the third round to fall back into a tie for the lead, and then he struggled one more time in the final round to finish in third place.
We wanted him to prove himself just this past August at the PGA Championship when he took the 54-hole lead ahead of mostly major-less players. Instead he wilted while rookies like Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff rose to the occasion.
By the time he came to this year’s Masters, Johnson had captured 23 PGA Tour titles and was one of eight players to finish runner-up in all four majors. He had done everything possible in normal events, from crushing fields by 11 strokes to defeating world-class players in nail-biting playoffs.
We just wanted to see him do it, just one time, when it counted.
Sunday was that day. Johnson had built a four-stroke lead coming into the last round and then looked wobbly coming out of the gates, making sloppy bogeys on Nos. 4 and 5 to see the lead cut down to one shot. We all felt uneasy. However, Johnson made birdie at No. 6 and settled himself back into a comfortable lead, providing an insurmountable cushion.
It’s a shame there weren’t more spectators on the final hole to give Johnson the standing ovation he deserved, especially with what happened next. In his post-tournament interview on CBS, the supposedly emotion-less gunslinger broke down — this time in tears.
Of course he cared about the heartbreaks. The scarring from the collapses was always there. Privately he also wondered whether his talents far outweighed his accomplishments.
They don’t anymore. Dustin Johnson is a Masters champion and now among the elite club of players to have won at least two major championships.
The conversation can finally end because the verdict is in.
You can trust Dustin Johnson.