A firmer, faster Augusta slows Johnson in title defense

Dustin Johnson prepares to hit on the fifth hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament on Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Dustin Johnson prepares to hit on the fifth hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament on Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Credit: David J. Phillip

Credit: David J. Phillip

Dustin Johnson didn’t have the kind of day a defending Masters champion prefers, especially one with dreams of hanging onto his green jacket for another year. But his first-round 2-over 74 didn’t exactly knock Johnson out of the picture, either.

Augusta National played much faster than it did in the fall, when Johnson shot a tournament-record 20-under to win. And a steady win blew most of the round, leaving Johnson’s game just a tad off the mark for most of the afternoon. He will start the second round nine shots off the lead, trailing Justin Rose.

“The course is a little bit firmer and faster,” said Johnson, ranked No. 1 in the world. “But it’s still the same golf course. Playing definitely a lot tougher just because, when the greens are firm and fast here, the golf course plays difficult. Then you add the wind in today, it made it play really difficult, I thought.”

His opening round was eight shots higher than it was in November and matched his second-worst opening round at Augusta National. Johnson hit 8-of-14 fairways, but only 10 greens in regulation in the opening round. When he won in the fall, Johnson led the field by hitting 83.3 percent of greens in regulation and was 13th with 78.6% of fairways hit.

“Maybe not quite as sharp as it was,” Johnson said. “Just more of the irons aren’t quite sharp as they were. I feel like I’m driving it good and putting it good. Just need to dial the irons in a little bit.”

Johnson’s day started poorly when his approach shot on the first hole rolled over the back of the green and led to a bogey. After a birdie on the second hole, he took another bogey at No. 5 when his tee shot found the forward fairway bunker on the left side and he was unable to reach the green with his approach.

Johnson got a pair of birdies at No. 11, chipping in from 51 feet ala Larry Mize, and at No. 13, where he two-putted from 14 feet. His tee shot at the par-3 16th landed way above the hole location, leaving him with a near-impossible putt to stop and a three-putt bogey.

The worst sequence came on the 18th hole. Johnson pushed his tee shot to the right and it rattled off a tree and into the pine straw. His only play was a punchout, but it carried through the fairway and into the patrons. His approach finished 31 feet past the hole and Johnson lagged it four feet short, only to have the bogey putt spin around the hole and hand him with a double bogey for just the second time in 39 career rounds.

“You’ve really got to be good with controlling your distance, which that’s what I thought was really difficult today, just with the wind. It was kind of gusty, too,” Johnson said. “I felt like I hit a lot of good shots that didn’t end up in good spots, just from misjudging the wind a little bit.”

Johnson showed no sign of tension on the course and said there was never a thought given to his opportunity of becoming only the fourth player to win back-to-back Masters.

“If anything, I’m a little more relaxed out there,” he said. “Today, like I said, it just played tough. I felt like I played pretty well too, or got it around pretty well. The last hole kind of stings a little bit, but (I’ll) go to the range, hit a few balls. I feel like I’m swinging well, playing good. Looking forward to the rest of the week.”

It was the fifth time Johnson has shot over par over his last nine stroke-play rounds since his victory at the Saudi International. Since the he has tied for 54th at the WGC-Workday, tied for 48th at the Players Championship and failed to get out of his pod at the WGC-Match Play Championship.

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