Masters 2020: Rory McIlroy’s path to victory, Justin Thomas’ improvement among nine final takeaways

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The ballots have been tallied, and Dustin Johnson has taken the state of Georgia for his second major championship. The afterglow of a Masters weekend is always full of intriguing takeaways, and the primary one this Monday is that D.J. is a worthy champion whose major total is starting to more appropriately match his talent level.

It’s easy to watch D.J. play and think that he could win five or seven or 10 more of these things. He won’t, but that’s the way he makes you feel. And now, the final part of his career is set up for him. Your legacy is secure when you’ve won Oakmont and Augusta National (as part of 24 PGA Tour wins), and now Johnson can simply see how many major championships he can collect.

We’ve discussed D.J. a lot. The quality of his game. What an endearing figure he’s (improbably) become in the latter stages of his preposterously good career. And we will discuss him more in the future, as well.

Johnson the co-favorite in April to win the Masters again (along with Bryson DeChambeau), and given his recent major record (14 top 10s since 2015), he’ll likely be involved in at least a couple of the four majors in 2021. But for now, we should set D.J. to the side and instead dive into a few other takeaways from a bizarre (but entertaining) November Masters.

1. Justin and Jon: Remember when Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson were all tied after 36 holes this year? That feels like a long time ago. D.J. got Thomas by eight strokes on the weekend and Rahm by 10. Thomas simply made too many mistakes with six bogeys in his last two rounds (that’s two more than D.J. made all week). I didn’t see all of his week, but it seemed as if a lot of the mistakes were more mental than physical. One good thing he can take away is that he has improved from the year before in every Masters he’s played. If that happens in April, he might be getting a coat from D.J. Rahm, on the other hand, had too many blow-up holes. His wild 8th on Saturday resulted in a double, and he did the same at the 12th on Sunday. A 72-71 weekend is rarely going to get it done at the Masters, especially not at this Masters.

2. Love for Sungjae Im and Cameron Smith: I didn’t see a ton of Smith on the week, but I followed Im around on Sunday, and his short game was filthy. He’s such a good player and such a young pro that it’s easy to see him being good for a long time. I do think he was likely helped by the fact that no patrons were out there trying to carry D.J. home, but a 69 in D.J.’s face when the biggest tournament of the year is on the line is not nothing. Smith notched his third (!) top five at a major championship.

3. That 75: Rory McIlroy beat Johnson by one stroke over the final 54 holes. Think about that. In eight of his 12 Masters, McIlroy’s had at least one round of 74 or worse, which often almost completely takes him out of the event. His fight on the weekend was impressive, but to win a Masters, the mission for him is simple: Turn that one round of 74 or higher into something at or even slightly under par.

4. The Bryson Experience: It was quite the ride. The following things happened to Bryson DeChambeau throughout the week at Augusta National.

  • Made a 7 on the 13th
  • Made a 3 on the 13th
  • Put a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 on his card throughout the week
  • Lost a ball on No. 3 and had to take a cart ride back to the tee
  • Led the field in driving by averaging 323 yards off the tee
  • Lost to a 63-year-old who averages 260 yards off the tee
  • Thought he might have COVID-19 because he was feeling dizzy and weak
  • Upped his intake of protein shakes
  • Perhaps those final two are related?

Here’s the thing — and Thomas said this before the week started — DeChambeau is not going to win every tournament he plays. That does not invalidate his strategy. Now, I do think it will be interesting to hear how he retools his strategy going forward because I’m not sure going full send on every shot at Augusta National is the greatest idea. But if this is the strategy that won Winged Foot by six, it’s going to win a lot (a lot!) more tournaments (maybe even including Augusta) in the future.

5. No juice on the weekend: The Masters is — and I realize this sounds insane — the one tournament a year where I get legitimately nervous on the weekend. There’s no rational reason for that because I’m not playing nor am I related to anyone with a club in their hands, but it happens on Saturday and Sunday every year. Until this year. The first few days at Augusta National did not feel that different, but there was definitely something missing on the weekend. Maybe that was obvious on television, but I have to think it was more felt here than any other tournament that’s been played since the PGA Tour restarted.

6. Tiger’s second nine: The 10 on No. 12 for Tiger Woods followed by five birdies in his last six holes seems to be a microcosm of where he’s at right now. A lot of good with some really bad mixed in that results in a product that’s pretty mediocre. He low-key seemed to really love this week. From playing with other past champs in a practice round to sliding the jacket on D.J. on Sunday, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him more jovial at a major championship, which was actually pretty cool to see. 

7. Webb Simpson on respecting the course: Simpson notched his second-straight top 10 at Augusta National (the only two top 10s of his career there), and something he said on Thursday is one of my bigger takeaways for the week, maybe especially as it relates to DeChambeau. He talked about how he started to respect the course and its nuances more starting a year ago.

“We just started playing a little more conservative,” said Simpson. “I feel like I’m a pretty conservative golfer as it is, but I didn’t feel like I was giving some of these greens and approach shots enough credit for how severe the short side can be. So we just shifted a little bit of our focus to kind of being ultra‑safe and know that there’s four par 5s, I’m going to have birdie opportunities. And when I did that, I started shooting better scores, making more birdies.”

8. Scenes from the grounds: My favorite thing from Sunday as it pertains to being on the grounds was watching Peyton Manning watch golf. He was locked in to D.J.’s group, and not just because of D.J. He stared down every Sungjae Im chip and every Abraham Ancer drive. It was a small delight during a weird week. Another fun visual was Thomas, Jordan Spieth and their significant others having lunch under the green and white umbrellas while D.J. accepted the jacket from Tiger Woods on the practice putting green 50 yards away. Nothing special, but it was something you would only see at Augusta.

9. Fine, one more D.J. note: I went back and watched his interview with Amanda Balionis a few times on Sunday evening, and it gets more remarkable each time. Somebody everyone puts on a pedestal for how seemingly little he’s always cared, it turns out, actually cares quite a lot. It was great to see a superhero succumb to an overwhelming moment and just let it go on national television.

In the end, I’m glad there was a 2020 Masters. I hope circumstances never force us into that scenario again, but it was a joy to see the course in November and to watch D.J. tear it down. Augusta National gets a lot of credit for making it happen this year, a year which — just like their golf tournament — has been unlike any other.

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