Dustin Johnson has often, and perhaps a little cruelly, been accused of living in his own world. There could be no such criticism as he revelled there on Saturday, though, an ether of daylight separating him from the chasing pack after a formidable third round at The Masters. The world No 1, whose sole major victory came back in 2016, is by no stretch enjoying a procession to victory, but on a day where Augusta truly awakened - its greens slippery and skating, the rough greedy and uncut - Johnson was an emotionless juggernaut, opening up a commanding four-shot lead as others faded.
Johnson’s deadpan expression, seemingly frozen in a pallbearer's grimace, hardly told the story in a round of 65 where his ball-striking was something close to a work of art. With a share of the overnight lead, he immediately surged clear with an exquisite eagle at the second, a 222-yard approach reduced to all of three feet. It was an ominous warning to the field, but few were able to heed it. Birdies followed at the third and fourth and he made the turn in 31. Every time his challengers clawed ground back, he strode ahead once again, with birdies on the back nine's two par-fives seeing Johnson tie Jordan Spieth's 54-hole record.
And for Johnson’s every faultless step, those behind him wobbled. Reed, who began the round just one back, made a disastrous double-bogey at the fifth. Thomas followed up bogeys at 12 and 14 with a calamitous hook into the water. Jon Rahm, who completed his delayed second round in blistering fashion in the morning, succumbed to a comedy of errors at the eighth, topping his approach into the trees, from where his punch ricocheted off a pine’s middle-stump and into the bushes.
Instead, it's the relatively unproven quantities of Abraham Ancer and Sungjae Im - both debutants at Augusta - and Cameron Smith who stand closest, but they could hardly be expected to keep pace. Johnson was on song and nobody could stifle his rhythm. A circus has revolved around players’ increased distance this week, and while the 36-year-old is certainly among that breed of gunslingers, this was as much an exhibition in elegant iron-play and a masterfully subtle touch around the greens.
Of course, Johnson has been here before, though. The constant drag on his career, even if that in itself feels a little ludicrous after 23 PGA Tour wins and £50million in prize money, has been his failure to capitalise at the majors. A rare showing of nerves has traditionally crept into his stone-like demeanour, particularly at Pebble Beach in 2010, where a three-shot lead at the US Open was surrendered within the opening half-an-hour on Sunday. He was a runner-up to Tiger Woods last year, and even without patrons, the course will be alive with tension. But if Johnson is able to ward off any doubts - and that gruesome record of failing to win his first four majors when he held a 54-hole lead - he will surely clinch his coveted Green Jacket.
The only player who came close to matching his impeccable round was, in fact, Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman’s hopes seemed all but extinguished after a sorry opening 75. But after what has become an all too familiar curse, then came a typically brave display of resilience. A terrific fightback on Friday hauled him just about into contention and his momentum continued on Saturday, a 67 dragging him into the top-10 at least.
There will be no repeat of last year’s Lazarus-like comeback for Woods, though, who woke at 3:15am to begin preparations for the latter stages of his second round. The defending champion was not quite a spent force, but was certainly jaded and moved a little gingerly as a long day wore on, a level-par 72 leaving him at -5.
It is not to be Woods’ story this time, but the end is starting to be written. Johnson has been infallible and there can be no qualms over his firm grip heading into the final round. With such a dominant lead, he has the chance to reduce Sunday’s drama to something strangely routine, but if history has taught us anything, there are few places as prone to sudden twists of fate as Augusta.
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