AUGUSTA — Dustin Johnson did not know the Masters scoring record when he broke it in November. (It was 18 under par; now it’s 20.) He did not know where he stood on the leader board until the hole before he won. (He had a five-stroke lead.) But he knows the three people who have won two straight Masters.
“Really?” said venerated AP reporter Doug Ferguson, who had asked the question at Tuesday’s pretournament press conference. “I’m sorry to be surprised.”
Both he and Johnson dissolved into laughter; Johnson has not previously shown himself to be much of a historian.
Now, to be fair to the reputation, Johnson did not actually name the three men who have gone back-to-back. (Jack Nicklaus, in 1965 and ’66; Nick Faldo, in ’89 and ’90; and Tiger Woods, in 2001 and ’02.) But Johnson’s genius does not manifest in his ability to produce trivia; it reveals itself on the golf course. And whether he can actually identify that trio or not, he understands why no one has joined it.
“It's a tough tournament to win,” Johnson said. “You're going to have to put four good rounds together, especially with the conditions, like normal conditions. You've got to do everything well. And with it firm and fast, it's just a really hard golf course because obviously any hole at any time can jump out and get you. So, you know, it's just very tough to win, I mean, to win once, and especially multiple times.”
Seventeen men have won more than one Masters, but most of them did it when the photos of their green jackets were in black and white. Since Woods won his first, in 1997, only three men have won more than once (Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson), and only Woods has gone back-to-back.
Ben Hogan nearly did it, in 1954. Instead he went to a playoff with Sam Snead, three-putted No. 16 and lost by one stroke. The result “preserved the tradition that no Masters champion ever repeats the next year,” said the AP story the next day. Doug Ford had a chance at it in ’58, but he parred the final 10 holes on Sunday to finish a stroke behind Arnold Palmer. Palmer fell victim to the same tradition in ’61, when he held a one-shot lead over Gary Player on the 18th tee. He made double bogey. Tom Watson came close in ’78, but he missed his par putt on No. 18 and finished a stroke back of Player. In 2016 defending champion Jordan Spieth led by five entering the back nine on Sunday, but a quadruple bogey on No. 12 ended his back-to-back attempt.
Johnson has a shot at doing what none of them could. If he succeeds he will completely rewrite the narrative surrounding him.
He was long considered the best regular-event player of his generation, with 22 wins in nonmajors. But other than his victory at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, he seemed to have a remarkable ability to collapse in big moments. At the ’10 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he entered Sunday with a three-stroke lead ... and promptly shot an 82. At the ’10 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, he had a one-stroke lead with one hole to play, and made bogey and took a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker. At the ’15 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, he was tied for the lead entering Sunday and then made three bogeys on the back nine.
After the third round of the 2020 PGA Championship, Johnson held the lead, two strokes ahead of his friend, four-time major winner Brooks Koepka.
“I like my chances,” Koepka said. “When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized. I don’t know, he’s only won one.”
Collin Morikawa won that event. But a win this week would put the record since Koepka’s swipe at Johnson 2, Koepka 0. Suddenly DJ would be in the conversation for best major winner of his generation.
Although this is the same course as the last major—a pandemic-induced quirk—it will play much differently. In November, Johnson dominated an Augusta National whose greens were slow and whose rough was thick. This week the forecast calls for sun, which should firm up the greens. Fans, allowed back on the course, will help trample down the shorter rough. Golfers will have to be more precise about where they put the ball. Johnson might well end up atop the leader board again. Not that he’ll look.