Opinion: Dustin Johnson struggles with firmer Augusta National as defending Masters champion

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AUGUSTA, Georgia – It’s only been 143 days since Dustin Johnson won the 2020 Masters, but on Thursday, on a windswept afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club, it looked like it was a lifetime ago.

For the first time in three years, Johnson failed to break the parity on a Masters round, and his 74-over-par was riddled with errors. The Masters champion with the shortest reign in history left the 18th green on a very different course than the one he left on November 15, 2020, as he ended with strength in a record breaking performance of 20 under the normal.

“The conditions are definitely different,” Johnson, 36, said afterwards. “The course is a bit firmer and faster. He’s definitely playing a lot harder. When the greens are firm and fast here, the golf course is playing tough. Then you add the wind today and it made the game really tough, I thought.

Yet despite his struggles, he was still tied for 36th when he finished, certainly not out yet, as only 12 players were under par when he finished. A tougher golf course creates such a contrast for Johnson, who smashed the record books in the fall, scoring 72 holes and becoming the first player to shoot two rounds of 65 in a Masters.

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Dustin Johnson hits his tee shot on the 4th hole in the Masters first round on April 8.

He was a different golfer Thursday because it was a different course. His November precision was gone; he passed several greens, his ball bouncing hard before flowing into the rough.

“You have to be really good at controlling your distance, which I thought was really tough today with the wind,” Johnson said. “It was a bit rushed too. I hit a lot of good shots that didn’t end up in the right places due to poor wind assessment.

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

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Johnson saved par on the 6th par 3 after his tee shot bounced off the green. He missed the green again in 11th place, but sank a 17-yard birdie token through the heart of Amen Corner, eliciting a robust roar Thursday from the small but noisy pandemic crowd.

“The irons aren’t as sharp as they used to be (in November),” he offered, and that sounded good.

Johnson birdied the 13th par 5 to hit a penny, then hit 16 when he again missed the green with an iron off the tee. He ended his uneven day with a sloppy double bogey triggered by a bad drive on the 18th.

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

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Why did he think it was so rare?

“It’s a tough tournament to win,” he said. “You’re going to have to put together four good rounds together, especially with the conditions. You have to do everything right. And with its firmness and speed, it’s just a really tough golf course, because obviously any hole at any time can jump and catch you. So it’s just really hard to win, I mean, to win once, and especially several times.

Johnson said his quest to become the fourth man to win back-to-back titles here hasn’t added any additional pressure.

“If anything, I’m more relaxed,” he says. “Today I just played hard, but I understood it pretty well. The last hole stings a bit, but I swing well and play well and can’t wait to get through the rest of the week.

Spoken like a man who still remembers very well what it’s like to win here, since it’s only five months ago.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dustin Johnson’s first round of Masters is more difficult with a fast and firm course