“Before I teed off, I think I would have taken it,” Johnson said. “But obviously I feel like I played a little bit better than my position right now. I’m still happy with the way I’m swinging it, how I’m controlling the golf ball and everything I’m doing.”
Johnson is vying to become the first player ranked No. 1 in the world to win the Masters since Tiger Woods in 2002. It’s surprising he doesn’t have a green jacket yet because, in recent years, he’s usually in contention. Johnson has finished eighth or better in the World Golf Ranking for five consecutive years and has 23 tour victories but only one major, the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Johnson again is in position to win at Augusta, which is about an hour’s drive from his high school in South Carolina. This will be the fifth consecutive Masters that Johnson stands eighth or better after the second round (he withdrew before the 2017 tournament because of an injury). But his recent pattern has been to fade in the third round, climb the leaderboard on the final day and then fall short.
Johnson’s past four Masters finishes: ties for sixth, fourth, 10th and second. Last year Johnson was six shots back through four holes of the final round. He ended up shooting a 4-under 68. If he’d made his last putt his final score would have matched that of Woods, who finished his victory later.
For Johnson, winning the Masters this year might just be a matter of finding his form on the par 5′s. In 34 rounds Masters rounds before this year he was 68 under par at those holes. Johnson is 3 under on eight passes at par 5′s this week.
“I think that’s the only thing that I need to really do any better is just figure out how to get some better looks on the par 5′s,” Johnson said.
Johnson took a bogey at the par-5 15th in the second round. His drive left him with a good angle to the pin 235 yards away. He hit the ball short and it trickled down the bank into the pond.
“I hit a good shot,” Johnson said. “Just got a gust of the wind.”
That bogey followed a three-putt from 32 feet at No. 14. Johnson sent his first putt along a ridge. It picked up too much speed and ran 16 feet past the hole. Johnson, normally stoic on the course, showed some frustration when he missed the par attempt.
Did the two bogeys halt his momentum?
“It didn’t,” Johnson said.
Johnson appeared weary after a day that he said started with a 4 a.m. wakeup. He continued his first round six hours later. Johnson was 3 under after 10 holes when play was stopped Thursday because of darkness. He used sharp iron play to close out the back nine with four birdies.
Johnson tallied birdies after sticking tee shots close to the pin at the par-3 12th (11 feet) and 16th (two feet). At No. 12 he hit his 170-yard approach shot eight feet from the hole. Johnson two-putted from 20 feet at the par-5 15th.
After the brief break, Johnson started his second round at No. 10. He repeated his birdie pattern at Nos. 11, 12 and 13. Johnson hit his approach close to the flag at the par-4 11th and stopped his tee shot a few feet behind the hole at the par-3 12th. At the 13th, Johnson hit his drive into pine straw left of the fairway, laid up with his second shot and then made a nice up-and-down for birdie.
That got Johnson the lead at 10 under. The two bogeys dropped him back to the field. The birdie to finish lifted him into a tie for the lead.
“I’m pretty pleased the way I played today,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of really good shots. Gave myself a lot of good looks. Just can’t really roll any putts in.”
Johnson, 36, is in the Masters' sweet spot of age, course experience and ability. Once he got his wish to play this tournament, it took him a while to take to the course.
From 2009 to 2011, Johnson climbed 53rd to seventh in the World Golf Ranking, but the best he could do at Augusta was a tie for 30th. He had one sub-70 round and six rounds over par during that span. Johnson didn’t play the 2012 Masters because of injury, tied for 13th in 2013 and then missed the cut in 2015.
Since then Johnson has been a permanent fixture on the Masters leaderboard. He’s there again after two rounds this week. Now we’ll see if he can finally finish on top.