Masters 2019: Dustin Johnson ‘close’ but still searching for swing from two years ago

April 9, 2019

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ah, Tuesday. A time to stroll the grounds, have a little lunch, enjoy the scene, and, as the mind wanders in the thick Georgia air, ponder the week ahead. Here’s an idea: What about Dustin Johnson? Could this be his week?

For all of his near-misses in majors – and remember, before he broke through at the Oakmont U.S. Open in 2016, Johnson had stockpiled a career’s worth of close calls – none of the crack-ups transpired at the Masters. Bunkergate? That was the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Final-round implosion? The 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Blown 72nd-hole putt? The 2015 U.S. Open. But Johnson carries precious little scar tissue from Augusta, and he enters the week riding a string of three straight Masters top 10s, including a 10th-place finish last year. Augusta has never broken his heart on the weekend.

As for the weekdays? Well…

It’s been two years since Johnson shockingly withdrew from the Masters on the opening tee Thursday morning, after reportedly tumbling down a set of stairs in his Augusta rental home one night earlier. When he left the course that Wednesday afternoon, he looked like the man to beat. He’d won three events in the Masters run-up and was everybody’s odds-on favorite. When he returned Thursday morning, he was sore and stiff, and moments later he wheeled out of town. Johnson still pines for the confidence he had entering that Masters.

“I definitely look back at it a lot,” Johnson said here at his press conference Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve got videos of my swing from when I was here in 2017, and so I watch those a lot to try to just get some of those same feels, and I feel like the game, it’s close. It’s not as good as it was then, but I feel like it’s going in the right direction.”

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He enters this week in a good spot – and yes, he does seem close. Last month he rolled to the title at the WGC-Mexico Championship and then notched top-10s at the Players Championship and the Valspar. It’s not 2017, but the current state of his game seems plenty good enough. When he’s on, no one hits it better.

So, let’s call it what it is: if DJ is going to see green this week, he’ll need to putt well. His driving has rarely failed him at Augusta or anywhere else. Asked what tee shot he struggled with the most at Augusta, Johnson took a good, long pause before offering, “It seems like 17 keeps getting harder every year.”

That answer feels a little goofy when you remember that the old Eisenhower tree is no longer around on 17 to swat down tee shots. It’s actually a much easier drive these days. DJ’s chat also offered a few other light moments:

–  On whether he counts calories, like his workout buddy Brooks Koepka: “I’ve never counted calories. If I’m hungry, I eat until I’m not hungry anymore and then I stop.”

– On what he’d take from Patrick Reed’s personality. “I like my personality. I’m OK.”

– On his new black Labrador driver headcover: “Charlie is the name. I have a Labradoodle named Charlie, so that’s what it’s based off of.”

Hey, it’s Tuesday. It’s all good. But back to the putting, because that’s probably where Johnson’s Masters begins and ends.

“I have confidence with the putter,” he said. “Just probably not as much as I do in the rest of the game, day-in, day-out, because some days the hole looks like the size of a five-gallon bucket, and some days the golf ball is bigger than the hole.”

He went out there in the late-afternoon sun, stroking six-footers on the practice green, with his younger-brother caddie, Austin, and his venerable coach, Butch Harmon, standing at attention. Six feet, over and over. Left-to-right, right-to-left, dead straight. At one point Johnson drained 11 in a row. At another point he missed four straight. Harmon hung in for a while before strolling over to check on another man in his stable, Rickie Fowler.

Then it was DJ all alone, searching for that feeling from 2017. He has two days left to find it.