AUGUSTA, Ga. — Abraham Ancer played in his first Masters this week, and he will take plenty of memories home with him to San Antonio, where his invitation is framed on his living room wall: the smell of the bermudagrass, the whistle of the wind on No. 12, the feeling of the butterflies in his stomach as he played in the final group of the final round of the tournament.
But the sight he saw most often on Sunday was Dustin Johnson’s back, as the eventual winner strode past Ancer to locate his ball.
Johnson blasted 13 of his 14 tee shots past Ancer’s and outdrove him by an average of 37 yards. On the only hole on which Ancer outdrove Johnson, Ancer hit driver while Johnson hit three-wood.
“I tried to look away,” Ancer said with a smile, after it was over and he had tied for 13th at eight under par. “I know I'm not going to catch his drives.”
Few golfers can. Johnson finished sixth in the event in driving distance, with an average of 306.5 yards. Worse yet, he finished 13th in driving accuracy, hitting 79% of his fairways. He was the only man to place in the top 15 in both categories.
The Tour driving average has increased by a yard or two almost every year since the 1980s and, headed into the Masters, it was 298.2 yards. But even as his peers get longer, the 6’4”, 190-pound Johnson still manages to blow it by most of them.
That’s hard enough for opponents playing in other groups. But the ones toiling alongside him have to spend an entire day trudging to their pedestrian, 280-yard drives and standing there as Johnson keeps walking … and walking … and walking.
“There were a couple that I either necked it or hit a tree and he was, like, 100 yards in front of me,” Ancer said. “But that's the way it's going to be for me if I'm playing with D.J.”
Remarkably, that is a bit of an understatement: On the 350-yard, par-4 third hole, Ancer’s tee shot landed a full 125 yards short of Johnson’s.
But Ancer mis-hit that ball. The most gaping difference in length came on the 460-yard, par-4 ninth hole, where Ancer hit his drive 292 yards. The third member of Sunday’s final group, Seungjae Im, hit his 301 yards. Johnson hit his 349 yards. It was like that old golf joke—”Did you hear they’re building a Walmart here?” “Where?” “Between your ball and mine”—come to life.
Im, who was also playing in his first Masters, had a slightly better time than Ancer: Im finished tied for second, at 15 under par, and Johnson only put 11 of his tee shots closer to the pin than Im did. But Johnson’s average drive was eight yards longer than Im’s—and Johnson hit three-wood instead of driver on three holes.
“I knew Dustin was long and accurate,” Im said afterward, laughing. “Just watching him play, he makes the game look so easy.”
Ancer, too, knew what to expect. He was paired with Johnson in the second round of August’s Northern Trust Open, when Johnson was 11 under par through his first 11 holes. (Johnson won that event by 11 strokes; Ancer missed the cut.) Johnson entered Sunday at Augusta with a four-stroke lead over Ancer, Im and Cameron Smith; Ancer knew he had to play a near-perfect round of golf on Sunday to have a chance at the green jacket.
“We have to go low, and that's it,” Ancer said on Saturday evening. “It's very simple. We have to just make a lot of birdies.”
At first, it seemed as if Johnson might give the field an opening. He flubbed his third shot on No. 2, flopping it into the bunker, and barely saved par on a hole he had eagled twice. He made bogey on No. 4 and No. 5. Ancer outdrove him twice in that span. But then Johnson stuffed his tee shot on No. 6 to seven feet and sank the birdie putt. From that point on, he bombed just about every drive. Ancer had no response.
“Days like this that show me how much I can improve,” he said. Still, he played well enough to guarantee him an entry to next year’s tournament. He has already begun to ponder what he will do differently in April. After all, he had a lot of time to think, as he stood around and waited for Johnson to reach his ball.