“Intelligent” isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when discussing Dustin Johnson but it was the big fellow’s astute golfing intelligence that got him through to a first Green Jacket after nervous early last-day mistakes threatened to make it another Major that got away.
A pitch that flopped into a greenside bunker followed by back-to-back bogeys gave his pursuers a glimmer of hope but DJ Immediately righted the ship and the way he tiptoed through the minefield of the most famous back nine in golf was a masterclass in risk management.
A five-shot victory with the lowest 72-hole score ever shot at the Masters may have taken the excitement away from the final stages but punters on the world No. 1 at 9-1 were not complaining.
The thrills came elsewhere, not least the vicarious one of seeing the treacherous short 12th humiliate the greatest golfer of his generation who went into the water three times on the way to writing a 10 on the scorecard. Less reported were the five birdies in the six holes response that enabled the wounded Tiger to finish under par. What a man!
The greatest joy for me was seeing Bernhard Langer at 63 not only breaking the record for the oldest man to make the Masters cut but also finishing In the top 30 ahead of Tiger and the bumptious Bryson DeChambeau.
It is doubtful if US Open champion DeChambeau saw the funny side of being outscored by a 63-year-old after his pre-Masters boast of bringing Augusta National to its knees.
With a driving average of 324.4 yards (longest in the line-up) to Langer’s 263.4 (shortest of the 60 qualifiers) it looked a total mismatch but thank goodness golf remains a test of skill over brute strength, otherwise some of us would have to find another game to play.
DJ will have the shortest Masters reign in history (unless he wins the next one) as it is only five months to April and the opening Major of 2021 for which he’s 8-1 favourite. He is unlikely to find the course quite so friendly. The fairways will be more fiery, the greens faster and scarier.
His winning score of 20-under-par is what we expect from birdie-fests like this week’s RSM Classic, not from a major championship. In fact, 20-under was what it was in Kevin Kisner’s record year, 2015, at the glorious Sea Island Resort on St Simon’s Island.
DJ is not involved this week in what is the strongest renewal of the PGA Tour’s penultimate stop of the season thanks to a shedload of Europeans staying on after Masters.
There are 18 of them playing the Seaside course (7005 yards, par 70) and the Plantation (7060/72) for the first two rounds, then the Seaside hosting the final 36.
Although Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm finished in the top seven, it was hardly a stellar Masters for the Europeans but surely at least one out of Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Fitzpatrick and Major champions Shane Lowry, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell, Henrik Stenson and Danny Willett will take a hand in the finish.
Or maybe someone like Alex Noren who didn’t get a Masters invite but has some handy recent form and was tenth on Sea Island last year when outsider Tyler Duncan defeated Webb Simpson in a play-off. The gutsy Swede could be the first European winner in the tournament’s 11-year history and the 80-1 is generous as he is fresh.
Duncan has not posted even a top-ten since and can be ignored but Simpson is a different matter. His tenth at Augusta was an eighth top-ten since the resumption. He has won either side of lockdown and is deservedly favourite. Twice pipped in Sea Island play-offs, Simpson looks solid each-way at 9-1.
Of those who played the Masters, South African Dylan Frittelli did best in fifth, closely followed by Taiwan’s CT Pan (7th) and 2019 Texas Open winner Corey Conners shared
tenth with Simpson. All are respected but hilly Augusta is a much more tiring course than you would think from TV and not all will repeat that form.
Preference is for Joaquin Niemann, who was gutted to have to miss Augusta after finishing a close third to thoroughbreds Jon Rahm and DJ in the BMW and being 45 under par for his three latest outings which included a sixth in the CJ Cup.
The young Chilean, just 22 and winner at The Greenbrier last year, tested Covid-positive pre-Augusta and will be desperate to make up for lost time. Masters hero Johnson also tested positive and had to stand down but came back firing on all cylinders. Niemann could do the same.
Also fancied are Masters runner-up Sungjae Im and Sebastian Munoz, third here last year and in ultra-consistent form, culminating in Sunday’s 19th at Augusta. This is mainly a putting contest and the Colombian can be devastating with the flat stick.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout 2pts each-way @ 12/1
Marcus Armitage 2pts each-way @ 22/1
Johannes Veerman 1pt each-way @ 28/1
Shubhankar Sharma 0.5pt each-way @ 25/1
Garrick Higgo 0.5pt each-way @ 22/1
The European Tour signs off a tumultuous year with three tournaments in South Africa and two in Dubai. When I was at school I wasn’t aware South Africa or Dubai were in Europe but the world’s a much smaller place these days. Maybe it’s time to update the Tour title?
This week’s Joburg Open, last played in 2017, has been revived and moved from Royal Johannesburg to Randpark (7506 yards, par 71), the course which staged the latest SA Opens.
Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen won the last two but there’s nobody of that calibre this year. Shubhankar Sharma won the last Joburg Open when it was played elsewhere but has been struggling to be competitive on both sides of the Atlantic.
There was a glimmer of light for the talented Indian star with a pair of top-20s in Cyprus as there was with Alexander Levy’s seventh in the Cyprus Showdown. The jovial Frenchman has had a dire couple of years but is turning the corner.
South Africans have won eight of the 12 Joburg Opens and they have plenty of chances. If a tiring debut week at Augusta where he shared 38th place with Woods and a big time-zone change can be shrugged off, Christiaan Bezuidenhout can add to that score.
A Johannesburg native, he has been trying his luck in the States with some encouraging results. Bezuidenhout conquered tricky Valderrama last year, lost out in a play-off with Lucas Herbert in Dubai and landed the Dimension Data on the Sunshine Tour.
Maybe even better was a third behind Danny Willett and Jon Rahm in last year‘s high-quality BMW PGA at Wentworth.
Johannes Veerman, 13th on the course in the SA Open, sounds South African but is a young American going places. His fourth last time out in Cyprus was the latest in the line of promising performances.
He could be a big threat as could Garrick Higgo, Dean Burmester, Gavin Green, Justin Harding and Adri Arnaus but English joker Marcus Armitage who plays well most weeks but keeps finding Sunday afternoons challenging could beat them all.
Armitage is 14-12-10-7 for his four latest starts and likes Randpark where he carded a third in the SA Open at the start of the year. The Salford 33-year-old’s last 17 rounds have all been under par and this modest event is where he might break his duck.
Local hero Higgo, only 21 and a double winner on the Challenge Tour in his rookie year, signposted his intentions with a third in the Cyprus Open at the start of the month. He and Wilco Nienaber, even younger and born this century, are South Africa’s future but are ready to win now.