AUGUSTA — This was supposed to happen last year.
Dustin Johnson was supposed to make a charge toward the top of the leaderboard at Augusta National Golf Club, to continue his rise as one of the best young players in the game. But fate, in the form of a jet ski, intervened.
Last year, Johnson reportedly tweaked his back while attempting to lift a jet ski and had to withdraw from the Masters Tournament. The injury actually caused Johnson to miss 11 weeks of action, but the sitting out the Masters was the hardest part for Johnson.
“This is my favorite event to play,” Johnson said Thursday after making the most of his return to Augusta National, carding a 5-under 67 in the first round, leaving him a stroke off the lead. “I only grew up an hour away from here, so it’s always one that I look forward to playing and enjoy coming here. … Obviously not playing last year, and then coming back this year and getting a good round is really good. It feels good.”
Johnson is a Dutch Fork High School alum and has established himself as a fan favorite in the Palmetto State and beyond. He’s achieved that status by contending for the lead in every major – except the Masters. That is until now.
Johnson got off to a fast start in the first round, making birdies on the first two holes. He finished his round with four birdies and an eagle, two of the birdies numbers coming via chip ins. If not for a bogie on No. 17, Johnson would be in a three-way tie with Sergio Garcia and Marc Leishman at 6-under.
In spite of the late slip, Johnson was very pleased with his performance.
“I had a great round today. Got off to a good start birdieing 1 and 2. Then kind of kept it going from there,” Johnson said. “Played really well on the back. Played the par 5s really well. Eagled 13 and birdied 15, and then had a lot of good looks on the rest of the holes.”
Johnson said he was fortunate to get his chip-in birdie on No. 1 because he was standing on a sprinkler head when he hit it. He hit a good shot anyway and did likewise on No. 9, for what he called an easy chip that hit pay dirt. He hit another tremendous chip on No. 13, setting up approximately a 15-foot eagle putt. Johnson only needed driver, 9-iron and putter to eagle the 510-foot hole.
Taking advantage of scoring opportunities has placed Johnson in contention in the Masters for the first time in his career. In three previous trips to Augusta National, Johnson finished tied for 30th and 38th twice.
“I’ve played okay here in the past, just not great,” Johnson said.
The previous lack of success at the Coastal Carolina alum’s hometown major is a little surprising considering his power game should suit Augusta National well.
“This golf course, it sets up really well for me,” Johnson said. “I love the shape of all the holes, and for my game, I think it suits very well. The par 5s are all reachable, depending on which way the wind is blowing, with pretty short irons, except for 8. It’s just a tough golf course to figure out like where to hit it, and using slopes, and then certain putts you have, what they are doing, is very tough. … You learn something new around here every day you play it.”
Johnson credits his best-ever round in the Masters to being older and wiser. He said he’s learned what to do when he finds himself in trouble. Johnson also said he limited his practice schedule this week, not overtaxing himself before the year’s first major began. So far, the approach has worked. It could lead Johnson to be near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday, something he’s done in the other three majors.
He finished tied for eighth in the 2010 U.S. Open and tied for fifth in the PGA Championship that same season, a year after tying for 10th in the same major. Johnson’s best finish in a championship came in the 2011 British Open, where he tied for second and followed that last year with a ninth-place finish in the Open Championship.
“I’ve been in this situation a lot,” Johnson said. “I know what it takes. … I just need to keep being patient.”
Johnson will tee off at 9:50 a.m. today, playing with Fred Couples and Branden Grace. While Johnson said he always enjoys playing with Couples, he had something in common with Garcia and Rickie Fowler among others. They were all wearing the same outfits Thursday. While he admitted they’re all friends, he was clear it wasn’t a choice of his.
“Well, we are not wearing the same outfit because we want to,” Johnson deadpanned. “This is Adidas; they script our clothing this week. We are wearing the same outfit because they told us to.”
When asked if he’d like to wear a similar outfit to one of the Augusta National members on Sunday, referring to the coveted green jacket, Johnson was quick to answer with much more enthusiasm.
“I would love to.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.