Dustin Johnson continues to build momentum at the Masters as he leads by four shots as his nearest rivals fall off the pace after the third round at Augusta International
- Dustin Johnson separated himself from the field with a superb third-round 65
- He is now 16 under and four shots ahead of the rest as he edges closer to victory
- Johnson went into the third round tied with Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas
- Both Thomas and Rahm struggled and now sit six and seven shots off the lead
- Abraham Ancer, Camerson Smith and Sungjae Im are now tied for second
They were first among equals at the start of the third round of the Masters, the only time in majors history where the world’s top three golfers had all been tied for the lead at halfway.
Heading into the final round today, the contrast is stark. World number one Dustin Johnson simply blew away number two Jon Rahm and third-ranked Justin Thomas courtesy of a fabulous bogey-free 65 for a four shot lead. With a 54 hole total of 200 strokes, Johnson has tied the 16 under par record set by Jordan Spieth in 2015.
So complete was his domination, Rahm and Thomas are not even his closest pursuers. That forlorn-looking task has fallen instead to three players for whom second place would be comfortably their best result in a major – Korean Sung-jae Im, Mexican Abraham Ancer and Australian Cameron Smith.
Dustin Johnson is closing in on Masters victory after hitting a superb 65 in the third-round
Johnson was tied for the lead after the second-round but pulled a gap to his nearest rivals
Any round in the same ball park this afternoon will see Johnson go one better than his runner-up finish last year and add a green jacket to his sole major success to date, the 2016 US Open. But we all know Johnson, the only man in history to blow his first four 54 hole leads in majors.
Given his past record, it will either go one of two ways with his fifth – he’ll either win the Masters by turning Augusta’s back nine into a lap of honour, or we’re in for the most spectacular collapse since Greg Norman fell apart in 1996 against Sir Nick Faldo.
All the signs are that it will be a runaway success. Everybody rightly goes on about Johnson’s shotmaking and prodigious driving but his best quality of all might be his resilience.
Imagine the disappointment of losing the last of those third round leads at the USPGA Championship in August, despite a final round 68? Johnson dusted himself off as he always does to put together the following sequence of results: win, second, win, sixth, second.
‘I’m swinging it well and I’m playing full of confidence,’ he said. ‘Everything feels like it’s working well.’
Helping Johnson’s cause was the erratic play of Rahm and Thomas. The Spaniard ran up a horrible double bogey at the par five 8th and is seven behind after a 72, with Thomas six adrift.
Johnson’s performance eliminated the chance for many competitors going into Sunday
Rory McIlroy is eight behind. Asked on the eve of the tournament for the one quality that linked successful people in all walks of life, McIlroy settled on one word: grit.
As he acknowledged, it takes on different forms but in a sporting context we’re seeing a pretty good example here from McIlroy himself. Completely out of sorts during a first round 75, his worst opening score at any Masters, he continued the robust recovery he started on Friday by following up his 66 with a gutsy 67.
He’s now four shots off second place and the leading player from the UK alongside Tommy Fleetwood. You wouldn’t have predicted that following his opening round.
At the start of yesterday’s play, it was as if he took one look at the sight of the world’s top three at the top and proclaimed: ’Don’t forget about me.’
What made his progress particularly impressive was that he plainly did not have his ‘A’ game. There were a number of ropey shots you never see when his shot-making is bang on. His Augusta demons also came out to play at the risk-reward par five 13th.
It was a disappointing Saturday for many including Jon Rahm who slipped seven shots back
McIlroy has actually played this hole in 20 under par during his Masters career but no wonder they say that stats can lie. The overriding memory remains of the tormented youngster, leading going into the final round, who stumbled with a horror back nine in 2011 and knew the game was up when he found the creek at the 13th. He was at it again with a horrific hooked drive on Thursday and then there was yesterday’s fun and games.
McIlroy came to this hole following a wonderful spot of luck at the 12th. He thought his tee shot was heading for the water. ‘Oh, Rory,’ he shouted, pleading for the ball to clear the hazard. It did so, finding the front bunker. He then holed the sand shot for an unlikely two. He was five under for his round, eight under for the tournament and with all the momentum.
‘He could get to 12 under and really post a number if he keeps going like this,’ Sir Nick Faldo said excitedly on American television.
So to the not-so-lucky 13th. Another poor drive on this hole necessitated laying up in two. A good pitch left him with a 9ft birdie putt. He had the chance to escape once more, but he missed that one and then missed the tiddler back for his first bogey in 32 holes. What a gut-wrencher.
Another came at the par five 15th where he found the water with his second shot. Then, some more of that grit for which he’s never been given enough credit. He still made par and then birdied the 16th.
McIlroy admitted afterwards that he had been tentative during the opening round, before freewheeling thereafter. ‘Maybe that’s the secret, don’t think too much about it,’ he said. It’s a thought he should stick with at Augusta.
By his side was Mr Grit himself, Bernhard Langer, at 63 the oldest man ever to make the halfway cut. Many expected the German to fold but that’s not exactly the story of his career. He birdied both short holes on the back nine for a 73 to continue his remarkable sub-plot at this year’s event.
For Tiger Woods, the third round began with the historical parallels positively unnerving between him and Jack Nicklaus’s sixth green jacket win in 1986. Like Nicklaus, Tiger began his pursuit of a sixth win ranked 33rd in the world. Like Jack, there was a 23 year gap since he won his first. Just to complete the picture, Tiger was tied 17th at halfway – just like Jack all those years ago.
History won’t be repeating itself today, alas. It was an ominous sign when Woods started doing some stretching exercises walking down the second fairway. Clearly, having to get up at first light to finish his second round hadn’t done his fused back any favours. He didn’t play badly, just not well enough to remain within touching distance of Johnson. He finished with a 72 to stay at five under and the defending champion will be playing for pride on Sunday.
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