AUGUSTA, Ga. — Perhaps it is fitting that the player leading the biggest golf tournament of 2020 prepared for the event last month by self-isolating in a hotel room for 11 days after a positive coronavirus test result.
“Just laying around, kind of doing nothing,” Dustin Johnson said of his mandated respite in late October.
But what of his conditioning, putting and driving-range practice for the all-important Masters tournament?
“The most movement I made was to the shower,” said Johnson, whose symptoms were minimal.
Johnson’s understated regimen appears to be working. With five birdies, an eagle and no bogeys, Johnson shot a seven-under-par 65 in Saturday’s third round to take an authoritative four-stroke lead over the field entering Sunday’s final round.
While most of the pretournament attention was focused on the hard-swinging Bryson DeChambeau and the defending champion Tiger Woods, Johnson, the world’s top-ranked golfer, was quietly, even idly, getting himself prepped for his latest run at the Masters title. He played in only one event in early November after his layoff, and with top-10 finishes in his last four Masters tournaments, Johnson was hardly an underdog, but he has now pieced together three sub-par rounds that have left him at 16 under for the 2020 tournament.
That is rarefied air, as the record for the lowest four-round Masters score is 270, or 18 under par, set by Tiger Woods in 1997 and tied by Jordan Spieth in 2015.
There is, however, another relevant historical perspective, and it does not favor Johnson’s prospects. While he came from behind to win the 2016 United States Open, four times in his career Johnson has held the 54-hole lead in a major championship and failed to win. It happened most recently at the P.G.A. Championship in August, when he tied for second behind Collin Morikawa.
Reminded of those disappointments after his round Saturday, Johnson said, “If I can play like I did today, I think it will break that streak.”
Some of his rivals are almost expecting as much. Tommy Fleetwood, who trails Johnson by eight strokes, was asked if thought he was still in the mix for this year’s Masters title.
“Well, yeah,” Fleetwood said with a laugh, and then added, using Johnson’s nickname, “Unfortunately, D.J.’s playing.”
Three golfers are tied for second behind Johnson at 12 under par: the Masters rookies Abraham Ancer of Mexico and Sungjae Im of South Korea, along with Australia’s Cameron Smith.
With softer-than-usual greens in this year’s Masters, a byproduct of heavy rainfall on Thursday and of varied November turf conditions, scores have been substantially lower. Each of the golfers in second place, for instance, has posted nothing but below-par rounds. When the delayed second round was finally completed early Saturday morning, the cut line to trim the field was 144 strokes, the lowest in Masters history.
“With the conditions being soft, you can be really aggressive no matter what club you have in your hand,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be aggressive, and you’ve got to attack the flags.”
Not every golfer was as confident, or as fit, as Johnson.
Woods, who began the third round five under par, was clearly hobbled on Saturday by his unpredictable and surgically repaired back. He moved stiffly and did not swing with the same fluidity he had exhibited in the first two rounds. His condition was particularly noticeable when Woods went to retrieve his ball from holes, which he did gingerly and by bending only his knees to limit strain on his back. Finishing his round at even par, he was 11 strokes behind Johnson, which all but eliminates him from contention for a sixth green jacket.
DeChambeau, the pretournament favorite, revealed Saturday that he had not been feeling well and went for a Covid-19 test Friday night. Although the test result was negative, DeChambeau, who is 13 strokes behind Johnson, said he still felt under the weather and had been having bouts of dizziness.
“Yeah, I’m not good, unfortunately,” DeChambeau, who shot his best score of the event, 69, on Saturday, said. “I don’t know what it is. I just feel kind of dull and numb out there — just not fully aware of everything and making some silly, silly mistakes.”
Johnson was the PGA Tour’s hottest golfer until the coronavirus interrupted his season, and as formidable as he and his lead are, the final round of the Masters has traditionally been volatile. Johnson’s closest pursuers have notable credentials. Im, who won the Honda Classic in March, was the 2019 rookie of the year on the PGA Tour and has four other top-three finishes since September 2019. Ancer is ranked 21st in the world and was second in two PGA Tour events this year. Smith’s recent record is not as impressive but he did finish tied for fifth at the 2018 Masters.
Lurking six strokes back is Justin Thomas, who like Johnson has one major championship victory, and who was tied for second behind Johnson at the Tour Championship, the final event of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Johnson, who grew up in South Carolina, about an hour’s drive from Augusta National, was asked how he intended to spend Saturday night with a career-defining victory perhaps 24 hours away. His answer was in line with his quarantine routine.
“What am I going to do? When I get back to the house, I’ll play with my kids,” he said.
His fiancée, Paulina Gretzky and her family are in town as well.
Johnson shrugged and grinned.
“Just going to have some dinner and hang out at the house,” he said.