On Sunday at the Masters, you could ask Dustin Johnson, who won with a record score of 20 under par, how it feels to discard, to a large degree, his 14-season reputation as a minimizer of major title chances. Now he’s not just the world’s top-ranked player but a man with two major titles, including this five-shot win at Augusta National — and a much lighter load to carry.
“I’m just proud of the way I handled myself all day and the way I finished off the golf tournament,” said Johnson, who has endured and now surmounted many years of tossing major title opportunities out the window along the golf highway like hamburger wrappers.
Johnson was hardly alone in demonstrating the proper response to golf embarrassment. For an object lesson in how to respond to making yourself look foolish, almost pitiable, you could not script what happened to defending champion Tiger Woods.
Playing solidly all week, honoring his own historic performance 19 months ago even though his game was rusty, Woods was blindsided by an especially dirty golf trick. He took a 10 — a septuple-bogey — at the par-3 12th, the shortest hole on the course. That’s one shot per 16 yards of length.
“I pushed it too far [right] and into Rae’s Creek. From there, I hit a lot more shots and had a lot more experiences,” he said, managing a smile. “[Golf] is unlike any other sport in that you are alone out there. No one is going to pull you out [of the game] — ‘off the bump.’
“So you just have to figure it out yourself.”
On the final six holes, Woods figured out a birdie-par-birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie ending to get back to 1 under par and finish tied for 38th. Why? For pride. For ornery. With one mulligan he might have been 8 under and in 13th place. But golf counts ’em all.
Perhaps there is no quality golf respects more than the ability to combine deep confidence with a wise, hard-won modesty. It’s possible — but difficult — to have both.
After winning the U.S. Open at Winged Foot by six shots in September, the iconoclastic Bryson DeChambeau, who has his own novel, experimental and sometimes downright radical theories about almost every aspect of golf, was asked, many times, to talk about himself, his methods and, in so many words, how wonderful he is or might soon be.
DeChambeau, a good fellow but wired tight and quirky, fell for it. He made a few self-deprecating comments, but what will be remembered is that he said “par” for him at Augusta was 67, not 72. Then he finished 18 shots behind Johnson, including 11 bogeys and three double-bogeys for the week.
Somewhere, the gods of golf must have had a midnight campfire, molded marshmallows into tiny Brysons and roasted them. DeChambeau complained of dizziness after the first round, took a coronavirus test (negative) and, by Sunday night, was completely perplexed.
“I had some weird things happen to me. I’ve got to get this dizziness fixed,” he said, describing his complete mystification at two “bladed shots” and another “chunk” that he said never happen to him. “My body feels great,” he said, “other than my head.”
Let’s hope his problem is physical and minor. But the stress of expectations, including your own, has made many a golfer perform as if dizzy, then be tempted to alibi.
Johnson knows all the head games because he has played them with himself. He has three-putted from 12 feet to miss a U.S. Open playoff. He has misunderstood rules on the 72nd hole of a major. He has come to the Masters as the favorite after winning his three previous events, then had to withdraw because he fell down the stairs in his rental house because he was wearing socks. He missed another Masters with a back injury from lifting a water scooter. He was runner-up to Woods last year, when he barely missed many putts. The list is almost mythological.
What is the result of all this? Apparently, a supremely confident, dedicated player who is also deeply modest; that lets him defend against his own past patterns of self-defeat.
Before this patron-less event, Johnson was asked his favorite thing about the Masters. Johnson, who grew up 75 miles from Augusta and has always viewed this as his dream title, took the downplay-it route.
“The sandwiches,” he said, straight-faced. Which kind? “All of them,” Johnson elaborated, leaving pimento cheese, egg salad and Masters Club (ham and cheese with mustard) to fight it out among themselves.
Who needs crystal for eagles or green jackets? Aim too high, take too many super-jock dumb chances, and perhaps you end up never winning a Masters. Better, maybe, to focus on the sandwiches and lay up on both the 13th and 15th holes on Sunday to avoid Rae’s Creek.
What we saw Sunday was the tempered Johnson, the tested one. Just last month, when he tested positive for the coronavirus, his bad luck in the weeks before major events seemed to be miserably intact. But his case was mild. He returned last week and finished second in Houston. Maybe he was rested for Augusta.
In golf, so much that is bitter must be swallowed, so much that is infuriating or an unfair rub of the green must be ignored, that some players adopt a stoic exterior that may be more a mask than it is their true nature.
Johnson, famous for his languid big-cat walk and casual manner, seems to exude, “Whatever, dude.” As his near-misses in majors have mounted, as his play everywhere else has documented his enormous athletic talent and titanic golf power, it has been natural for the golf world to wonder what is missing — dedication, passion to win or “X.”
Perhaps it is none of the above. Maybe it took him longer to learn — by personal experience, rather than observing the pitfalls of others — all the ways not to win majors.
In a sparsely attended ceremony Sunday — each player was allowed a caddie and one other person — Johnson said his brother, Austin, his longtime caddie, cried on the 72nd green. “I had to jab him. ‘I still got to finish this out. I can’t be crying,’ ” Johnson said. But then, recalling the final moment of his win — he cried. And cried.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s hard to speak,” said Johnson, who is sometimes suspected of not caring enough when perhaps the problem was the opposite. “Whew . . . Sorry . . . I’ve never had this much trouble gathering myself. On the golf course, I’m pretty good at it. Out here [wearing a new green jacket], I’m not.”
Learning to gather yourself under stress, after disappointment and especially after feeling that you have failed yourself — maybe that is what golf teaches. If so, then Johnson graduated, with high honors, on Sunday.