Dustin Johnson struggles with firmer Augusta National as defending Masters champ

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Christine Brennan
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – It has been only 143 days since Dustin Johnson won the 2020 Masters, but Thursday on a windswept afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club, it seemed as if it was a lifetime ago.

For the first time in three years, Johnson failed to break par during a round at the Masters, and his two-over-par 74 was riddled with mistakes. The Masters champion with the shortest reign in history walked off the 18th green of a very different course than the one he left back on November 15, 2020, when he was emphatically finishing a record-breaking 20-under-par performance.

“The conditions are definitely different,” the 36-year-old Johnson said afterward. “The course is a little bit firmer and faster. It’s playing definitely a lot tougher. When the greens are firm and fast here, the golf course plays difficult. Then you add the wind in today and it made it play really difficult, I thought.”

Masters: Leaderboard | Photos

Yet despite his struggles, he still was tied for 36th when he finished, certainly not out of it yet, as only 12 players were under par when he was done. A more difficult golf course sets up such a contrast for Johnson, who destroyed the record books back in the fall, setting the 72-hole scoring mark and becoming the first player ever to shoot two rounds of 65 in one Masters.

He was a different golfer Thursday because this was a different course. His November precision was gone; he overshot several greens, his ball bouncing hard before trickling away into the rough.

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

Trouble found him right away. He bogeyed the first hole when he couldn’t hold the green. It happened again on the fifth hole, when an errant drive found a fairway bunker and he failed to get up and down, missing a 9-foot putt for par.

Johnson saved par on the par-3 6th hole after his tee shot bounced hard off the green. He missed the green again on No. 11, but sank a 17-yard chip for birdie in the heart of Amen Corner, eliciting a robust Thursday roar from the small but boisterous pandemic crowd.

“The irons aren’t as sharp as they were (in November),” he offered, and that sounded right.

Johnson birdied the par-5 13th to reach one-under on his day, then bogeyed 16 when he once again missed the green with an iron off the tee. He finished his uneven day with a sloppy double-bogey triggered by a poor drive on 18.

Earlier in the week, Johnson was asked if he knew the three players who have successfully defended their Masters titles, winning back-to-back. He said he did. For the record, it’s Jack Nicklaus in 1965 and 1966, Nick Faldo in 1989 and 1990, and Tiger Woods in 2001 and 2002.

Why did he think it was so rare?

“It’s a tough tournament to win,” he said. “You’re going to have to put four good rounds together, especially with the conditions. You’ve got to do everything well. And with it firm and fast, it’s just a really hard golf course because obviously any hole at any time can jump out and get you. So, it’s just very tough to win, I mean, to win once, and especially multiple times.”

Johnson said his quest to become the fourth man to win consecutive titles here didn’t add any additional pressure.

“If anything, I’m more relaxed,” he said. “Today just played tough but I got it around pretty well. The last hole stings a little bit, but I’m swinging well and playing good and looking forward to the rest of the week.”

Spoken like a man who can still vividly remember what it feels like to win here, since it was only five months ago.