Fellow players say Dustin Johnson's Masters victory shouldn't be diminished by coming in Fall
One player after another, in interviews at Augusta National Golf Club this week, have emphasized the difference in how the course played in November 2020 and its firmer and faster conditions this week as the season's first major championship returns to April.
Dustin Johnson won five months ago with a record score of 20-under-par 268. He became the first player in Masters history to shoot 65 twice in the same week and hit 83 percent of his greens to lead the field.
The scoring average was a record 71.752 but was not much off the 71.865 in 2019 when Tiger Woods won.
But will the chatter about how "soft" the course played in the fall ever lead to an unspoken addendum to Johnson's dominant victory – "but it was in November?"
Not according to his fellow competitors, the same ones who have gone on and on about the course conditions five months ago.
Despite that, they seem unwilling to ever put an asterisk on Johnson's victory.
"I don't think there should be," said Cameron Champ on Tuesday after a practice round at Augusta National. "He's the Masters champion. He deserves it. He beat everybody and ... didn't just win by one shot. Whether it's soft or firm, he golfed his ball and played flawlessly all four days."
"He's a Masters champion," said Patrick Reed, the winner in 2018. "He is now owner of a green jacket. It doesn't matter what time it is."
But even Johnson said on Tuesday that Augusta National in November and April are almost two different courses.
"It's pretty firm ... the ball's bouncing a good bit," he said. "So definitely, a lot different conditions than it was in November. Obviously, the golf course played really soft then just because of the weather. With the course being firm and fast like it is, you're definitely going to have to be a little more careful about where you hit the ball."
Photos: Tuesday at the Masters
Johnson, who will have the shortest reign of any Masters champion, could put any such talk to rest by successfully defending his championship. But only Woods (2001-2002), Nick Faldo (1989-1990) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) have done that.
As the world's No. 1 player and owner of 24 PGA Tour titles, it's never a surprise if Johnson wins anywhere, anytime.
But he knows how hard that will be.
"It's a tough tournament to win," he said. "You've got to put four good rounds together, especially with the 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. It's just very tough to win once."
Style points aside, the top players in the field are glad for the firm conditions, knowing that Augusta National officials couldn't control last fall's weather that led to a course with receptive greens.
Phil Mickelson was amazed during one round last fall when he hit a 5-iron into the second green, and the ball plugged.
"The golf course's only defense is the greens," Phil Mickelson said. "So when the greens are firm, the precision, the course management, the angles, the leave where the ball is left, all of this stuff becomes incredibly important in your ability to play this course effectively. When the greens are soft, it's irrelevant because you can fly the ball over all the trouble. Angles don't matter. The guys are so precise in their ability to fly the golf ball the correct yardage with every club that if you have soft receptive greens, it's like having a military and then not giving them any weapons, right. It's defenseless."
Mickelson said he didn't think the club would go overboard in backing off the water on the course to somehow make up for how it played last fall.
He was confident that chairman Fred Ridley and his rules staff would strike a balance.
"I would say that there's nobody more qualified within the club to know, understand and set the course up better than Chairman Ridley," Mickelson said. "His ability to set the game up at the highest level ... he's the most qualified to do it right."
Dustin Johnson Masters Record
Johnson won't be the first major champion in recent history to set a scoring record on a "soft" course. Rory McIlroy won the 2011 U.S Open on a Congressional course that had been soaked with rain in the weeks leading up to the tournament. McIlroy shot 16-under 268 and became only the third player to shoot four rounds in the 60s at a U.S. Open.
Time has diminished any questions about McIlroy's victory and so it likely will for Johnson -- who contended that most of the characteristics at Augusta National don't change with the seasons.
"It's still the same golf course ... the shots that you hit ... it doesn't really change," he said. "Just the spots where you land it kind of change depending on the firmness and where you're at or what club you're hitting."
Johnson also didn't just come out of the blue to carve up the course five months ago. It was his fifth top-10 finish in a row and came a year after he tied Brooks Koepka for second, just one shot behind Woods. Since missing the cut in 2014, Johnson is a cumulative 49-under par with a scoring average of 69.55.
Reed said one other thing didn't change about playing the Masters in November: Johnson beat the best players in the world, who all faced the same conditions.
"You have the best players in the world coming in and playing at the most coveted golf courses on the planet, and he went out and shot a really low number and did what he had to do to win a green jacket," he said.