Dustin Johnson understands major disappointment, but what he’s feeling now as he sits on the sidelines of this year’s Masters has to be different than anything he’s experienced in golf.
Johnson withdrew from the year’s first major on Thursday morning, standing on the first tee with brother and caddie Austin, making the tough decision that trying to grind through a lower back injury suffered Wednesday afternoon wouldn’t be worth it if he didn’t believe he could win the tournament. He came to the conclusion he couldn’t win, so he didn’t bother starting.
The injury happened around 3 p.m. Wednesday when Johnson, walking in socks, went out to the garage of his Augusta rental home to go to move a car. Johnson slipped on one of the steps, fell and hit his elbow and lower back. A doctor advised icing and prescribed anti-inflammatory medication, with less than 24 hours to recover before his 2:03 p.m. tee time with Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker.
Johnson showed up quarter past noon on Thursday, attempting to warm up and get prepared enough to play. Through winces and his brother-caddie Austin teeing up balls for him, Johnson clearly looked uncomfortable, and it was clearly dubious if he could play. However, the Johnson brothers made their way to the first tee, looking out over the difficult first hole and surveying the windy conditions. It was then the calculation had been made: better to withdraw than try to fight, perhaps futilely, through pain.
The world No. 1 was out of the Masters before he had a chance grab it by the horns.
“It sucks,” said Johnson. His analysis wasn’t loquacious, but it didn’t need to be.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect for Johnson, who posted a career-best fourth-place finish in last year’s Masters, is that he estimates had this happened earlier in the week — on Monday, Tuesday even — then he would have been able to play pain-free.
Instead, the world’s best player, who would have been seeking his fourth-consecutive win, a second major in the last four played and an opportunity to establish himself as a generational great, has to watch someone else get a green jacket on Sunday he no doubt believes should be his.
Johnson’s other major disappointments have come at the end of majors, not the start. Bunkergate at Whistling Straits. The 2-iron out of bounds in the 2011 British Open. The three-putt par to lose the U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth. Before overcoming all that and the USGA at last year’s U.S. Open, Johnson had often taken it to the end and just couldn’t avoid the one stroke of fate.
This time, playing the best golf of his life, fate’s circadian rhythm was off, and golf is worse off for it. Add it to the collection of what-if moments in a career that was starting to be more defined by his excellence than his failures.
The next chance Johnson will have to win a second major comes in June at the U.S. Open, when he’ll defend his title at Erin Hills, a course that can be stretched out to a staggering 8,000 yards. If this injury is just a bump in the road as it appears, Johnson will be a clear favorite to retain his title. While Johnson is the rare kind of character who doesn’t dwell on his mistakes, he’ll no doubt have a fleeting thought questioning why fate didn’t favor him this week when pretty much everyone else did.