World No 1 Dustin Johnson maintains hot form in Masters
The last time Dustin Johnson was in red-hot form with the Masters looming, he slipped on the floor in his rented house in Augusta, did himself an injury in the process and didn’t make it to the starting gate.
Three years after that unfortunate mishap, the American had just built up another head of steam when winning the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour before catching COVID-19 as the Georgia event loomed on the horizon.
Talk about untimely, but, on the plus side, it meant his isolation period was done and dusted before this week came around. Johnson had just enough time to get himself ready after being bored to death in a hotel room in Las Vegas and it’s so far, so good for the world No 1.
In the event’s 84th version, Johnson has opened with rounds of 65 and 70 for a nine-under-total to sit at the top of the leaderboard alongside compatriot Justin Thomas, Mexican Abraham Ancer and Australian Cameron Smith.
Having recorded four top-10 finishes in his last four appearances in this tournament, Johnson is in the mix again heading into the weekend, which will start with the second round being completed.
Among those to finish are Spaniard Jon Rahm, who sits on eight-under, with defending champion Tiger Woods resuming on four-under but pre-tournament favourite Bryson DeChambeau outside the projected cut on one-over.
As half of the field completed their opening rounds following a three-hour delay on Thursday morning due to bad weather, Johnson covered his last six holes in four-under, including birdies at the 15th, 16th and 18th, to earn a share of the lead with Paul Casey and Dylan Frittelli at the end of the first circuit.
It looked very ominous indeed as Johnson, who won both the Northern Trust Open Tour Championship to claim his first FedEx Cup, then burst out of the blocks with three birdies on the spin from his second hole to move to 10-under.
But, after dropping his first shot of the week by finding the wrong portion of the green at the 14th, he then came up agonisingly short with his approach at the par-5 15th and bogeyed that as well after getting wet.
A run of 11 straight pars to follow was broken when he rolled in a six-footer for a birdie to finish.
“I'm pretty pleased the way I played today,” said the 2016 US Open champion afterwards. “Hit a lot of really good shots. Gave myself a lot of good looks.
“Definitely pleased with how I'm swinging the club, controlling the golf ball right now and everything I’m doing. Just hopefully can see a few more putts go in over the weekend.”
It’s been a dream debut so far Ancer following scores of 68 and 67. “I know it’s a little different,” said the 29-year-old, who won the 2018 Australian Open, of the event being played behind closed doors, “but this is all I know. I love it, I feel confident with my driver and I am rolling it really well.
“This was the only major I missed last year. I wanted it so bad and, since it was postponed from April to November, I have been dying to be here.”
Thomas, the 2017 US PGA champion, signed for seven birdies, including four in a row on his front nine then two to finish as he backed up an opening 66 with a 69, while Smith, who tied for fifth here in 2018, had an eagle, six birdies and four bogeys in adding a 68 to a 67.
“It was a very up and down round,” said the 27-year-old, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour. “It could have definitely gotten away from me, just with the tiredness and playing 26 holes in a day. But hung in there, and the reward was there at the end.”
In what is shaping up to be a strong event for English players, Danny Willett, Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose have all reached the halfway stage on seven-under, whie overnight leader Casey is on six-under with eight holes to play.
Since closing with a bogey-free 67 in 2016 to become the first Englishman to claim a Green Jacket since the last of Nick Faldo’s hat-trick of triumphs in 1986, Willett had missed three cuts in a row here. What a way to end that miserable run.
Having opened with a 71, the Yorkshireman started his second circuit with a double-bogey 6 at the tenth before bouncing back with an eagle and three birdies in five holes then picking up shots at the second, third and ninth. He took route 66 to get back in the Masters mix.
“I’ve been playing pretty good coming into the week and you get some nice memories and nice vibes, even though it is playing differently to how it normally plays,” said Willett, who had plummeted down the world rankings before recording wins in the DP World Tour Championship in 2018 then the BMW PGA Championship the following year.
“Unfortunately, my driver cracker on the 17th hole this morning, so I had to hit 3-wood off the tee in the second round. But I produced some really good iron play and seeing my name on the leaderboard here again after four years was very pleasant.”
On a rain-softened course, the first round produced 53 rounds under par and 24 rounds in the 60s - both records for the event.
That made career grand slam-chasing Rory McIlroy’s worst-ever start - a three-over 75 - painful, having hit poor shot after poor shot in the nine holes he had to complete after darkness halted play on Thursday evening.
“That is so bad, oh my god,” said the four-time major winner in reaction to finding water with a horrible pull at the 16th. His drive at the 13th was another horror as it almost ended up on the adjoining Augusta Country Club.
It was much more like it, though, after heading back out after a quick turnaround. He birdied the 10th, 12th, 15th and 17th going out before adding further gains at the second and eighth for a 66 and a three-under total.
“I went and hit five 9-irons and one 3-wood in between rounds and just tried to release the club a bit more to be a little bit more committed to my shows and my swing,” said McIlroy. “It was just a case of trusting a bit more and it was better this afternoon.”
More of the same and he will still have a chance to join Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Jack Nickaus and Tiger Woods in that exclusive club.
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