Dustin Johnson rides season-ending hot streak into Augusta
It took a while for Dustin Johnson to get comfortable at Augusta National Golf Club. He’s definitely there now, and enters the COVID-19-delayed 2020 Masters as the recently-minted PGA Tour Player of the Year and FedEx Cup champion.
In his first five appearances in the Masters Tournament, starting in 2009, Johnson finished better than 30th just once (a tie for 13th in 2013).
Times have certainly changed. He has finished in the top 10 in his past four Masters, with a career-best runner-up finish, alongside Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele, last year.
Johnson’s the only player in the field to be in top the 10 in the Masters every year he played since 2015. He tied for sixth in 2015, tied for fourth in 2016, missed 2017 with a back injury suffered on the eve of the tournament when he was the hottest player in the game, tied for 10th in 2018 and was a runner-up last year.
Photos: Dustin Johnson at the Masters
Rory McIlroy had a top-10 streak from 2014 through 2018, but it ended last year when he tied for 21st.
That streak might continue for 2020, but not for the reasons anyone hopes. Johnson announced Oct. 14 that he tested positive for coronavirus, forcing him to withdraw from the the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas and the Zozo Championship in California. Johnson told the PGA Tour he began experiencing symptoms late Sunday evening. He has not said how it may impact his Masters participation.
Johnson is playing at the level he did before that 2017 Masters he lost to injury. When the PGA Tour returned June 11 from a three-month break due to the coronavirus, Johnson went on a tear, winning three times.
In his final four starts of the regular season, he tied for second in the PGA Championship, won the Northern Trust (by 11 shots by shooting 30-under), was solo second in the BMW Championship and then won the season-ending Tour Championship, which earned him the FedEx Cup. He was named player of the year by his peers the next week. Then, in the rescheduled U.S. Open in September, he tied for sixth place.
It was the first FedEx Cup title for Johnson.
“It is something I really wanted to do,” he said afterward. “I wanted to hold that trophy at the end of the day. It was something I wanted to accomplish during my career.”
Despite a game seemingly tailor-made for Augusta National, the long-hitting Johnson said it has taken time for him to become a factor in the Masters.
“The more you play here, the kind of the more comfortable you get around this golf course you know what tee shots and where to hit it and the flags and kind of how to attack the golf course,” Johnson said. “So that plays a part in it. Then I think just me as a golfer getting better and kind of just all throughout the whole game, just having more confidence, hitting it better, driving it better, doing everything a little bit better always helps around here.”
Johnson threw a scare into Tiger Woods with a back-nine explosion in the final round last year. He was even-par for the final round through 12 holes, then birdied Nos. 13, 15, 16 and 17. As it turned out, he needed another birdie on No. 18 to get in a playoff. He made par, and Woods won by a shot. Johnson finished with 68, with a costly bogey on No. 3.
“There's holes where you can make a move and I knew that if I wanted to do that I needed to play 13 through 18 well,” Johnson said. “And I feel like if you give yourself some looks on 10, 11 and 12 you're happy, but you'll take pars on those three holes every time you tee it up. And yeah, I felt like I put myself in a good spot and I had some looks at it and I did put a good back nine together, just it wasn't quite good enough.”
Johnson, who started the day five shots behind 54-hole leader Francesco Molinari, was in the third-to-last group of the day. Woods was in the final group, and Johnson was well aware that he was putting on a charge of his own.
“As loud as those roars were it's kind of hard not to pay attention,” he said. “So yeah, I was looking at it, it doesn't bother me. I like to know where I'm at and I knew what I had to do and I felt like I gave it a pretty good shot.”
When Johnson won the WGC-Mexico Championship in February 2019, he became just the fifth player in 50 years to reach 20 career wins on the PGA Tour before age 35.
But Johnson, now 36, hit a dry spell, partly because of problems with his left knee. He had arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage damage in September 2019 and returned for the Presidents Cup in mid-December.
Before breaking the drought at the Travelers on June 28, he had gone 20 tournament starts since that win in Mexico.
Johnson has won at least one time in each of his first 13 seasons on the tour, which had been achieved by only three other players – Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
With 23 career PGA Tour wins, he’s tied for 27th on the tour’s all-time victory list, one behind Gary Player and Macdonald Smith and two behind Johnny Miller and Tommy Armour. Johnson, who has one major championship (the 2016 U.S. Open) is one of eight players to finish as a runner-up in all four majors.