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Masters Day Three Recap: Dustin Johnson Poised to Exorcise Final-Day Demons

Dustin Johnson is four strokes ahead of the field after possible contenders like Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy faltered at different points over the first three rounds.

It was a Masters Saturday that began with 10 players separated by one stroke atop the leaderboard—a board littered with some of the top-ranked players in the world. But on moving day at Augusta, it was the world’s No. 1 golfer who separated himself from the pack.

After three days at the Masters, Dustin Johnson is the 54-hole leader at 16-under par after a sparkling round of 65, his second 7-under par round of the tournament. With the dominating performance, DJ ties Jordan Spieth’s 54-hole Masters scoring mark and has the all-time record of 270 in his sights.

DJ leads a trio of international players—Abraham Ancer (Mexico), Cameron Smith (Australia) and Sungjae Im (Korea)—by four strokes. There are high-powered players within striking distance, but after seeing Johnson stroll Augusta’s fairways with such ease, carding an eagle and five birdies during his bogey-free round, it appears nothing can slow Johnson down.

Dustin Johnson waves after his putt on the tenth green during the third round of The Masters

Dustin Johnson waves after his putt on the tenth green during the third round.

Saturday featured some dazzling golf, with dozens of players jockeying for position. It’s what moving day at the Masters is all about.

Here are a few key takeaways from round three at Augusta National.

DJ in familiar territory

Dustin Johnson has been here before. No, he’s never held the lead after three rounds at the Masters, but when it comes to 54-hole leads in major championships, DJ is an experienced veteran. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out well for him.

This marks the fifth time in a major championship that Johnson will hit the pillow after 54 holes holding the lead. Thus far, Dustin is 0 for 4 in turning those leads into 72-hole victories. In 2010, the lead was three at the U.S. Open, when DJ imploded with a final round 82. The 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay featured a missed 3-foot putt on the 72nd hole to finish one back of Jordan Spieth. He faltered once again at the U.S. Open in 2018, this time fumbling a shared lead with Brooks Koepka at Shinnecock Hills that resulted in a third place finish. And most recently, the 54-hole lead at the PGA Championship in August, where he ended up tied for second.

Johnson doesn’t need reminding. He’s well aware of the disturbing trend.

“If I can play like I did today, I think it will break that streak.” said a confident Johnson, whose previous low round at the Masters was 67 prior to this week. “Going into tomorrow, I think I've got a good game plan. I'm not going to change it. I'm going to have to go out and play well. There's a lot of really good players right around me, so as we all know here, if you get it going, you can shoot some low scores. I'm going to need to go out and play a really good round of golf if I want to win tomorrow.”

DJ has one major championship victory on his resume, so he certainly knows how to win, but his triumph at that 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont was from behind. That June Sunday outside Pittsburgh, Johnson came back from four strokes down to catch Shane Lowry. This Saturday night, he goes to bed with the lead at the Masters.

“I’ll be thinking about the first tee shot,” Johnson said, admitting it’s hard not to imagine the possibility of slipping on the green jacket. “I know right now I feel really good. There’s a lot of confidence in what I’m doing.”

Anything can happen on Sunday at Augusta

Dustin Johnson’s lead is four strokes, and in golf a multiple stroke margin held by the No. 1 player in the world should be secure. But of course, this is the Masters. Anything can happen on Sunday at Augusta.

With explosive players lurking four and five shots back, a slip or two by DJ could even the playing field in a hurry. You only have to look back to 2016, when Jordan Spieth was is in complete control of the Masters and securing his second green jacket in as many years.

Following a birdie at the 9th hole on Sunday, Spieth held a five-stroke lead with just nine holes remaining. And then the unimaginable happened. One mistake led to another and then a catastrophe. Within three holes, the lead and the Masters was gone.

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It’s that possibility that has players like Justin Thomas feeling like there's still a chance.

“Unfortunately for all of us chasing DJ, there's no fans or nothing to make that moment even harder. To have the buzz, to have the adrenaline, to have a little bit more pressure put on him,” said Thomas, whose third round was derailed by four back-nine bogeys, leading to a 71. “It's going to take something pretty special for me to have a chance tomorrow, but I know I can do it. It's just about doing it.”

“I really just can't wait for tomorrow,” said Cameron Smith, whose third round 69 left him four shots back of Johnson. “I'm four back. Obviously I need a hot start tomorrow, and then the back nine has been kind to me, so hopefully it can be kind to me one more day."

Rory and Rahm regrets

It appears 2020 will not be the year Rory McIlroy completes the career grand slam at Augusta. Jon Rahm will probably have to wait another year to capture his first major title. Both players have shown some explosive golf at times this week but will likely leave Augusta with a ton of regret.

McIlroy’s regret dates back to Thursday, when he opened up the Masters with a first round 75. A sloppy round of 3-over par simply didn’t add up for the Northern Irishman, who had been gearing up for his Augusta opportunity in 19 months. The thing is, McIlroy used the round as motivation and has played the last two rounds at 11-under par. That’s two shots better than leader Dustin Johnson.

“Eleven under for the last two days, I think that sort of speaks for itself.” said McIlroy whose third round 67 left him eight shots off the lead. “The good golf was in there, I just didn't allow myself to play that way on the first 18 holes. This course can do that. This course can make you a little bit careful and a little bit tentative at times.”

Rory McIlroy reacts to his tee shot off the 12th tee box during the third round of The Masters golf tournament.

Rory McIlroy reacts to his tee shot off the 12th tee box during the third round.

For Jon Rahm, the frustration immediately set in on Saturday evening. Rahm began round three as part of a five-way tie atop the leaderboard. But instead of charging ahead, the Spaniard fell behind with a few uncharacteristic swings and double bogey on the 8th hole he’d love to forget. Rahm steadied his round for an even par 72, but on a day where scoring conditions were optimal, Rahm lost serious ground.

“No way I can be happy about it. The golf course was there for scoring, I was playing good, and couldn't take advantage of anything.” said an agitated Rahm following the round. “That's all I can say. Fought at the end to try to salvage an under-par round, and I couldn't. Hit some decent drives down the stretch and couldn't really get it done. Simple as that. “

Two keys to keep an eye on Sunday

Early tee times an advantage for DJ

With tee times moved up more than five hours compared to the traditional Sunday times at Augusta, can Dustin Johnson use the lack of waiting to his advantage? 54-hole leads are never easy to sit on, but when it’s the Masters and you wait agonizingly until around 2:30 pm in the afternoon, a lot can creep into a player’s head.

Johnson will tee off at 9:29 am ET. A perfect opportunity for the ultra-laid-back DJ to keep things simple. Wake up, have breakfast and go to the golf course. Expect a solid start from Johnson early on.

Tiger not feeling 100 percent

At 5-under par, Tiger Woods title defense will not produce a 16th major title. After completing a second consecutive uneventful round leaving him 11 shots off the pace, Woods hinted that his surgically repaired back has had a tough time standing up to the stop and start marathon this year’s Masters morphed into.

“These are long days,” said Woods following a Saturday 72. “I had my day off yesterday, which was nice. Today was not the case. We've been at it for quite some time. If you have long days like this, I'm going to get a little bit sore, which I definitely am.”