No. 1 in the world, Dustin Johnson tries to shine at Augusta
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Turn the calendar to the first full week in April, and Dustin Johnson’s three straight victories suddenly seem like dress rehearsals.
Now it’s time for golf’s biggest star to perform at Augusta National, the sport’s greatest theater.
It’s not always that simple at the Masters.
Tiger Woods looked unbeatable in 2000 when he either won or was runner-up in 10 out of 11 PGA Tour events going into the Masters. He took a double bogey and a triple bogey in a span of three holes in the opening round and never caught up. A year ago, Jason Day won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Dell Match Play in successive weeks to reach No. 1 in the world. He never shot better than 71 at the Masters and tied for 10th.
It has been 15 years since the No. 1 player in the world — Woods in 2002 — won the green jacket.
For years known as having the rawest talent and the most athleticism, Johnson now is looked upon as a machine, with scant evidence that he has a pulse.
“A perfect, complete player,” Jon Rahm said after losing to Johnson in the finals of Match Play.
“There’s just not a flaw,” two-time major champion Zach Johnson said.
Jordan Spieth knows Johnson’s game as well as anyone. They were partners at the Presidents Cup two years ago, and they regularly play together at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He has learned not to look because it can get depressing watching Johnson hit shots that few can. That said, Spieth is savvy enough to realize golf is still about the score on a card, and he won Pebble Beach by four shots.
As for the Masters?
“I think Dustin Johnson is the guy to beat in golf no matter where you are,” Spieth said. “Put him anywhere. I think just about anybody would agree with that. If I play my best golf, I believe that I can take down anybody, and you have to believe that. But I think that right now … he’s playing the best golf in the world.”
No one can dispute that over the last month.
Johnson reached No. 1 in the world with a five-shot victory at Riviera, where he probably would have shattered the oldest 72-hole scoring record on the PGA Tour if he had known or cared what it was, rather than playing it safe and coasting home over the back nine. He won a World Golf Championship in Mexico City (stroke play) and another one on the edge of Hill Country in Texas (match play).
It has been just over 40 years since a player came to the Masters having won three straight tournaments.
And to think that just a year ago, the talk was about a modern version of the “Big Three” with Day, Rory McIlroy and Spieth.
Johnson wasn’t even part of that conversation. When the 81st Masters begins Thursday, the 32-year-old American will not have experienced anything but trophy presentations for nearly two months.
Johnson talks about the improvement he has made in his wedges, though the biggest difference was going to a controlled fade off the tee, instead of a draw that could sometimes get away from him.
“We were trying to get him to hit it for five or six years,” swing coach Butch Harmon said. “He just had to buy into it. He controls it so much better, and it hasn’t cost him any distance. It’s way too early to compare Dustin to Tiger, but it reminds me of Tiger in 2000.”
For all his power, Johnson never could figure out Augusta National until two years ago when he tied for sixth. He was nine shots behind Spieth, but it was his first top 10 at the Masters. Last year, his hopes in the final round were ruined by a pair of double bogeys. He tied for fourth, four shots behind.
“The more you play it, the most you understand it and know where to hit,” Johnson said.
Don’t get the idea the rest of the field is about to roll over for Johnson. Jack Nicklaus marvels at the depth of the top of the golf, which is greater than he has ever seen. Right behind Johnson in the world ranking is McIlroy, who has his own score to settle with Augusta National.
McIlroy had a four-shot lead going into the final round in 2011 and shot 80. Now, the Masters is all that’s keeping him from becoming the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. This is his third try, and he has never had a better chance than that first one.
“I think about what could have been and if that hadn’t have went wrong, I wouldn’t have to answer the questions that I have to answer at this time of the year, every year, until I win one,” McIlroy said.
Spieth has his own bad memories, even though he still has a green jacket.
He had a five-shot lead last year going to the back nine in his bid to become the first player to go wire-to-wire in successive years. Instead, he dropped six shots in three holes, including his infamous quadruple bogey with two balls in Rae’s Creek at No. 12, and finished three shots behind Danny Willett.
Spieth has played the Masters three times and has one victory and two runner-up finishes.
The mystery is Day, who started the year at No. 1 and has had two close calls at the Masters. He pulled out of Match Play because his mother is battling lung cancer, and Day says he’s having a hard time keeping her off his mind.
The other mystery, of course, is Woods.
So dominant for so many years, dating to his 12-shot victory 20 years ago, Woods is certain only to be at dinner Tuesday night for the most exclusive meal in golf — Masters champions only.
It’s a dinner Johnson would love to attend.
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