By JIM LITKE
Watching Dustin Johnson play, it’s hard to tell whether he’s four shots ahead or behind. He doesn’t anguish over bad shots and rarely celebrates good ones. He’s the same no matter the size of the stage.
This week, there were plenty of reasons for that ease. Johnson arrived at Augusta National ranked No. 1 in the world and arguably the hottest player in golf — that despite almost two weeks in quarantine last month after a positive test for the coronavirus.
Asked to assess the state of his rival’s game, Rory McIlroy chuckled.
“See ball, hit ball, see putt, hole putt, go to the next,” he said.
A moment later, McIlroy added, “I think he’s got one of the best attitudes toward the game of golf in the history of the game. I don’t know if I can compare him to anyone else, but the way he approaches the game is awesome.”
Johnson is playing near-flawless golf, firing a bogey-free 65 Saturday to reach 16 under — tying one Masters record — and build a four-shot cushion. With only 18 holes remaining, the unenviable task of knocking Johnson out of his comfort zone fell to a trio of pursuers — Sungjae Im, Abraham Ancer and Cameron Smith — without any meaningful experience in the final round of a major championship.
Their best hope may be that Johnson beats himself. Despite all the arrows pointing in the opposite direction, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Four times previously in majors, he’s been in front or tied for the lead after 54 holes and failed to seal the deal.
A decade ago, in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Johnson shot 82 on Sunday. Later that same summer, he appeared headed for a playoff to decide the PGA Championship only to get derailed by a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a bunker. In 2015, he had a 12-foot birdie putt to win another U.S. Open, this time at Chambers Bay, and three-putted to lose to Jordan Spieth by a stroke.
Oddly enough, he captured the lone major on his resume, the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, by coming from four shots off the pace. He hardly needed reminding of that tortured history.
“I know what it takes,” Johnson said after Saturday’s round. “I know how I respond in this situation. I’m very comfortable with having the lead going into tomorrow. I’ve been in the situation a lot of times.”
The third round began with 10 players separated by one shot. Johnson zoomed away from the pack by scorching a 5-iron from 221 yards out on the par-5 second for a tap-in eagle, then watched the wrecks pile up behind him.
Farther down the leaderboard, sentimental favorites Tiger Woods, the defending champion, and Phil Mickelson ran out of gas. Pre-tournament betting favorite Bryson DeChambeau, who barely made the cut, failed to gain any traction.
Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm, both of whom were expected to challenge and put themselves in position, peeled off after uncharacteristic mistakes. The consensus by day’s end was that without the roars of a loud, raucous gallery to a.) rattle Johnson; or b.) support a charge by one of his pursuers, Johnson could play comfortably from the front and maybe even make a run at the 18-under winning total posted by Woods in 1997 and tied by Spieth in 2015.
“If he goes out there and plays really solid like today,” Ancer conceded, “it’s going to be pretty much impossible to catch him.”
Smith, perhaps aware of Johnson’s bobbles, was a little more sanguine.
“Anyone with a four-shot lead is expected to win,” Smith said. “There’s going to be plenty of boys firing tomorrow.”
Whether Johnson will even notice remains to be seen. While most of his closest competitors stumbled on every side, he toured Augusta National on cruise control.
Johnson’s tee game, in particular, was masterful. He hit every fairway Saturday and by late in the round, he simply smashed his driver and reflexively dipped to retrieve his tee, apparently unworried about where the ball would land. In complete command of nearly every other facet of his game, Johnson sounded like a golfer looking forward to the final round of a member-guest instead of the Masters.
“Tomorrow,” he said finally, “it’s just 18 holes of golf.”