AUGUSTA, Ga. – Internally it’s called “inside the bamboo,” which is shorthand for the sprawling property that includes Augusta National’s iconic course and clubhouse, where time seems to stand still.
Scoreboards at the Masters are still manually operated and egg-salad sandwiches will set you back $1.50. “Inside the bamboo” is a window back to simpler times. Outside of the bamboo. nothing feels right – not in 2020 – but within the manicured walls of the outsized hedges that ring the property, there is order.
Not complete, unquestioned order, that’s not happening at a November Masters. But there are bedrocks that neither a pandemic nor politics can shake.
That the golf world even made it to Augusta National this year is a testament to the tournament’s enduring agelessness. Unlike other sports, the only consideration when it came to playing the 2020 Masters was the competition – not TV contracts or revenue streams or anything else. And it’s that competition that ultimately separates life inside and outside the bamboo.
With an alarmingly few exceptions, the Masters produces compelling finishes and although Dustin Johnson appears determined to be a ginormous exception, the course will have the final say.
The world No. 1 will take a four-shot advantage into the final round thanks to a brilliant 65 on Saturday to separate himself from the field. The 72-hole scoring record at the Masters is 18 under par, set by Tiger Woods in 1997 and matched by Jordan Spieth in ’15. DJ is at 16 under – tying the 54-hole Masters record (Spieth, ’15) – and doesn’t appear to be in protect mode with 18 holes to play.
But even if DJ runs away from the field on his way to Butler Cabin – it’s worth noting that he’s held at least a share of the 54-hole lead 21 times in his PGA Tour career with a 10-11 record – there’s still a measure of normalcy in his domination.
In Johnson’s last six starts he’s finished T-2 (Houston Open), T-6 (U.S. Open), first (Tour Championship), second (BMW Championship), first (The Northern Trust) and T-2 (PGA Championship). Mixed in amid that ruthless dominance was a bout with COVID-19 and an extended trip to the IR.
DJ hasn’t won a green jacket, but most agree he’d look good in one. His distance, towering ball flight and this week’s putting performance has turned the soft layout into a par 67, with apologies to Bryson DeChambeau.
“I would say the game is in really, really good form right now. Very similar to what it was back in 2017,” said Johnson, who is the first player with two rounds of 65 or better at the same Masters. “It’s just very consistent. I feel like I’ve got a lot of control of what I’m doing, controlling my distance well with my flight and my shape. I’m very comfortable standing over the golf ball right now, and obviously that’s a really good feeling.”
That’s not to say there aren’t variations on this isolated norm and some of those differences can be jarring, like the utter lack of atmosphere at a place that’s been built on buzz.
Late Saturday, as Johnson’s group rounded Amen Corner, the only backdrop was a smattering of applause from a handful of volunteers and club members and the hum of an overhead drone.
There will be a hole in Sunday’s canvas.
“It’s a different challenge. It’s still a brilliant challenge, it’s just a different challenge to April, which is what this whole week has really been about. But it’s still the Masters,” Paul Casey said.
This week’s low scoring, which includes Johnson’s record pace and featured the lowest cut (even par) in Masters’ history, is also a standard deviation. Thursday’s storm that forced officials into catchup mode opened the door for aggressive play and the vast majority of players were more than happy to walk through.
“It got a little bit faster, yes. But the putts just still aren’t quite breaking,” said Tiger Woods, who drifted 11 shots off the lead with a third-round 72 and will tee off In the last round of his title defense at 8:12 a.m. ET on Sunday.
For all the differences a November Masters has created, it’s the tournament and this course that’s pulled golf back to something so intimately familiar with the club welcoming some of those imperfections like never before.
In recent years, the PGA Tour reinvented its schedule to avoid conflicts with football. This week, Augusta National embraced the conflict, hosting ESPN’s “College GameDay” on the adjacent par-3 course. An afternoon of Masters viewing, followed by an evening of college football. How’s that for a tradition?
This Masters is DJ’s to win and yet Augusta National’s second nine routinely plays spoiler. It was just last year when Francesco Molinari took a two-stroke lead into the final nine holes on Sunday and finished tied for fifth.
There’s also Johnson’s tortured status as a forlorn front-runner. The 2010 U.S. Open seems like ancient history and there’s no reason to rehash the ’15 U.S. Open, but it was just three months ago when he lost the PGA Championship after taking a one-shot lead into the final round. But if DJ is haunted by his near-misses it doesn’t show.
“The only thing you can do out here as a player is give yourself as many chances to win as possible and that’s what he’s done,” said Johnson’s swing coach, Claude Harmon III. “I can tell you the 54-hole leads he has not converted he does not think about.”
Without patrons it will be eerie around Amen Corner early Sunday afternoon (we’re looking at a 3 p.m. ET finish) and the way DJ is playing it might be too much to hope for some 11th-hour theatrics, but you just never know with golf inside the bamboo.