Augusta National buckled beneath the feet of Dustin Johnson on Saturday.
Now comes the day of the trap doors.
Johnson shot one of the most relaxed 65s in Masters Tournament history. He stands at 16-under-par, four ahead of Sunjae Im of South Korea, Abraham Ancer of Mexico and Cameron Smith of Australia.
He is ranked No. 1 in the world. In his wake, No. 2 Jon Rahm and No. 3 Justin Thomas trembled. His 200 for 54 holes ties Jordan Spieth’s record, set in 2015, when Spieth went on to shoot 18-under and tie Tiger Woods’ tournament mark.
He also tore apart what promised to be a whirlwind moving day at Augusta. When Johnson came to the second tee, he and nine others, out of the 60 who made the cut, were tied for the lead at 9-under. Johnson extinguished the party with a 3-foot eagle putt on No. 2, an 8-foot birdie on No. 3, and a sensational 38-yard birdie putt on No. 4, the strenuous par-3.
He has bogeyed two of 54 holes. He has hit 47 of 54 greens in regulation. On Saturday, he hit all 14 fairways. His average approach shot wound up 29.8 feet from the hole, best in the field. When he has had to scramble, he has saved par six of seven times.
“If he keeps playing like that, it will be pretty much impossible to beat him,” said Ancer, although he and Smith can become the first ever to break 70 in all four Masters rounds, odd as that sounds.
“I’ve got a good game plan and I’m not going to change it,” Johnson said. “But there are a lot of good players who are capable. I’m going to have to play well.”
That means stepping around the trap doors. Not even Bryson DeChambeau’s best drives can match the difference, psychological and physical, between Masters Saturdays and Sundays.
Johnson is no more of a sure thing than Greg Norman was in 1996, when he shot 63 on Thursday and pretty much played in his own flight for the next two rounds. On Sunday, his six-shot lead didn’t even last until the 12th hole, and he shot 78 and watched Nick Faldo shoot 67 to win.
Johnson is no more of a sure thing than Rory McIlroy was in 2011. McIlroy led by four strokes on Sunday morning. Then he shot 80, including an oft-photographed shot off the 10th fairway that wound up in the white cabins that hardly anyone sees. Charl Schwartzel birdied 15 through 18 to win.
And nobody was more of a cinch than Spieth in 2016, when he chugged to a five-stroke lead after nine holes and already had the 2015 green jacket in his closet. Two water balls on the villainous 12th hole removed that lead, and Danny Willett wound up winning, with Johnson in second.
Johnson has been ranked No. 1 for a total of 100 weeks, although not consecutively, and has won at least one Tour event in each of his first 13 years. Only Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have done that. He is the 2016 U.S. Open champ and has 19 Top Tens in majors, with five wins in WGC events.
Yet Thomas, for one, did not think Johnson was inevitable. He lamented the absence of fans “who might put some pressure on him if somebody starts making birdies and eagles out there.”
Thomas knows Johnson is 0 for 4 when he has 54-hole leads in majors. However, the past is not always prologue. Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson used to vanish into the Sunday ground. They recovered to win 14 majors between them.
At 36, Johnson has enough time to win a handful. Some mock his success as the triumph of the uncluttered mind. When Brooks Koepka tried to needle Johnson for his major record at the PGA, Rory McIlroy warned, “You’ll never get inside his head.”
If Johnson and his brother/caddie Austin lacked savvy, they wouldn’t have sharpened DJ’s wedge and putter game. If Johnson wasn’t so dedicated to refining his athleticism, he wouldn’t have gotten this far without major injuries. Just a few weeks ago, he came down with COVID-19, but he was second at Houston last week.
He is also blessed with a certain humility. When some players lose majors, they worry about erasing the stain from the career résumé. When it happens to Johnson, he shrugs and asks when the plane leaves. It’s a game, not a personal referendum.
“If I keep playing like I did today,” Johnson predicted, “I’m going to end that streak.”
He begins walking the earth again Sunday morning, an eye on every step.