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A Masters For The Ages

The azaleas were nowhere to be found and the drive down Magnolia Lane was missing its usual escort of color but the world’s most revered golf theater was still resplendent.

The Chinese firs and the array of evergreens still held sway lining the perfect fairways and surrounding the terrifying greens. It was a Masters like never before, but it still cast its magic spell on us, just the same.

Devoid of patrons, this year the only spectators would be the small assembly of Augusta National members. The lack of noise would make the venue even more cathedral like as the players navigated America’s most hallowed ground.  

Inclement weather greeted the players on Thursday’s opening round of the 84th Masters as the shortened day did not allow all the players to finish their round. But those who did complete their opening salvos at Augusta National played some brilliant golf. The golf course had been softened by rain which made low scores the norm rather than the exception.

Defending and five-time Masters Champion, Tiger Woods carded a flawless 4-under par 68, that left him three shots off the lead. That lead was held by England’s Paul Casey whose 65 was highlighted by inspired iron play and putting. Casey would have company at the top of the leaderboard when he was joined by world #1 Dustin Johnson and South Africa’s Dylan Frittelli who finished their first round on Friday morning.

A stroke behind the leading trio were American superstar Justin Thomas and South Korea’s Sungjae Im (the 2019 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year).

Americans Webb Simpson and Xander Schauffele were two shots behind in a tie for second after matching 67’s. They were joined at that number by England’s Justin Rose and Australian Cameron Smith who also completed their opening rounds on Friday morning.

Woods was joined in a tie for 10th by Americans Patrick Reed, South African Louis Oosthuizen, Japanese star, Hideki Matsuyama, Mexico’s Abraham Ancer and 47-year old Englishman Lee Westwood. 

Pre-tournament favorite, Bryson DeChambeau had a topsy turvy day but eventually recorded a 2-under 70 that left him firmly in contention. He was matched at 70 by 62-year old Larry Mize (the 1987 Champion), which was pretty incredible considering DeChambeau averaged a whopping 334 yards off the tee (not all drivers either) while Mize’s average was 247 yards. There are many ways to play this great game.

Even more remarkable than Mize was 63-year Bernhard Langer whose 4-under 68 was a round for the history books. Finishing his first round on Friday morning, the ageless two-time Champion would begin his second round in a tie for 10th. Langer would go on to be the oldest player to ever make the cut at the Masters when he shot a 1-over 73 in the second round to be 3-under and well inside the cut-line. 

After the completion of the first round there were 51 players under par in the field of 91. Augusta National had never seen scoring like this but we have never seen anything like 2020 before either.

Unable to catch up from Thursday’s first round almost half of the field were unable to finish their second rounds on Friday, but Johnson and Thomas would be two of the players tied for the hallway lead at 9-under. They were joined by the less likely duo of Ancer and Smith.

A stroke behind the four leaders were Matsuyama, Im, American Patrick Cantlay and Spain’s Jon Rahm (who held the world’s #1 ranking for four weeks earlier this year) at 8-under.

Taiwan’s CT Pan, Oosthuizen and a trio of Englishmen, Rose, Tommy Fleetwood and 2016 Champion, Danny Willett were one shot behind at 7-under. Casey could not replicate his day one form and was 1-over through 11 holes, while Woods maintained his position at 4-under after 10 holes.

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy was hopelessly out of it after an opening round 75 but rebounded with a 6-under 66 that would leave him on the periphery of contention. The 31-year former world #1 lacks only the Masters to win a career Grand Slam.

Schauffele and Reed (who both still had holes to play on Saturday morning), Frittelli and Columbia’s Sebastian Munoz were at 6-under but history has shown that anybody who makes the 36-hole cut at Augusta has a chance to win the Green Jacket.  

After finishing up the second round on Saturday morning Rahm would join the leaders at 9-under with a 6-under 66. Reed matched his first round 68 to be part of the cluster at 8-under while Woods improved slightly to enter the third round at 5-under for the tournament. Casey continued his pedantic play and was at 5-under after a 2-over 74. Woods and Casey were joined by ageless 50-year old 3-time Masters Champion, Phil Mickelson, while DeChambeau barely made the cut at even par.    

Saturday’s moving day was precisely that. Continuing his dominant play, Johnson would separate himself from the field with a flawless 7-under 65 that left him at 16-under through three rounds and 4 shots clear of his nearest pursuers. Johnson’s 3-day total tied Jordan Spieth for the lowest 3-day score in Masters history and if he played as well on Sunday he stood to eclipse the all-time scoring record of 18-under set by Woods in 1997 and Spieth in 2016.

Ancer, Smith and Im were tied for second at 12-under, with Frittelli one further back at 11-under followed by Thomas at 10-under. Rahm, Munoz and Reed were at 9-under and McIlroy, Fleetwood, Matsuyama and Brooks Koepka one in arrear at 8-under.

It was Johnson’s Masters to win.                

Sunday’s first challenge to Johnson’s lead came from the 27-year Aussie Smith who carded a 3-under 33 on the front 9 to move within two of Johnson, whose own 1-under front 9 left him at 17-under. Smith is a very talented player who has won twice each on the Australian, European and PGA Tours. He is also (an Australian characteristic) not afraid to offer his honest opinion about something which was witnessed when he called out Patrick Reed for cheating at the Hero Challenge in 2018.

Im was in third at 13-under with Thomas, McIlroy and Frittelli at 10-under. As everyone knows the Masters doesn’t really start until the players begin the Amen Corner heading into the final 9 on Sunday. Realistically though these five were the only players who would be able to challenge Johnson.  

A bogey by Smith on the 11th hole coupled with a birdie by Johnson on the 13th would stretch the lead to 4 shots with 5 holes to play. Consecutive birdies by Johnson on the 14th and 15th holes increased the lead to 5 and put the 36-year old Carolinian into unchartered waters as he became the first player in history to reach 20-under par at the Masters.

Three closing pars would give Johnson a 5-stroke margin over Smith and Im and the all-time scoring record at 20-under. 20 in 2020.

Thomas finished in 4th at 12-under one ahead of Frittelli and McIlroy.

This is Johnson’s second Major victory after having broken through to win the 2016 U.S. Open and his 24th PGA Tour win which ties him for 24th on the all-time winning list. Johnson has always been a prodigious talent but since honing his short game over the last 6 years, he has ascended to being a great player. Still in his prime, Johnson may continue this dominant play and become one of the game’s icons.

That remains to be seen, but this will surely go down as one of the all-time great weeks at Augusta in a Masters that was truly one for the ages.