Different conditions, same approach for Dustin Johnson’s Masters title defense

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Dustin Johnson won the Masters going away last year. It was anything but a good walk spoiled at Augusta National as he set several tournament records on his way to the major title. Most notably, Johnson set the 72-hole record of 20 under par with a 268.

That was November. This is April.

Moved to late in the year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Masters featured softer conditions. The year’s first major is back in its normal date in April, when it can play fast and firm and the greens can wreak their intended havoc if the weather cooperates.

Johnson doesn’t expect different conditions to change his game or his approach as he tries to become the fourth player to defend his Masters title.

“It’s still the same golf course,” Johnson said. “I mean, the shots that you hit, it doesn’t really change. Just the spots where you land it kind of change, depending on the firmness and where you’re at or what club you’re hitting. The golf course hasn’t changed.”

Johnson’s tournament scoring record was two shots better than the previous mark set by Tiger Woods in 1997 and Jordan Spieth in 2015, at 270. Johnson became the first player to have two rounds of 65 in one Masters (65-70-65-68). Among the other records, Johnson made only four bogeys, the fewest of any champion. The previous record was five bogeys, held by five players — Jimmy Demaret (1940), Jack Nicklaus (1965), Ben Crenshaw (1995), Phil Mickelson (2004) and Trevor Immelman (2008).

Johnson was asked Tuesday whether he knew the three golfers who successfully defended a Masters title. He smiled and said he did but did not offer to name the elite company he could join. For the record, they are Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Woods (2001-02). Yes, that’s high company.

“It’s a tough tournament to win,” Johnson said. “You’re going to have to put four good rounds together, especially with the conditions, like normal 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, you know, it’s just very tough to win, I mean, to win once, and especially multiple times.”

Masters preparation has been held in recent days with warm, dry conditions. The greens are starting to show a little brown, a sure sign of the intended speed and bite.

In November, the greens were soft. Mickelson said he plugged a 5-iron into the green at No. 2 last year, quite a feat on an approach to the par-5.

There are chances of rain late in the week, especially Saturday. That could turn the course into something more resembling how it played last year.

“The guys are so precise in their ability to fly the golf ball the correct yardage with every club that if you have soft receptive greens, it’s like having a military and then not giving them any weapons, right,” Mickelson, the three-time champion, said. “It’s defenseless. … However, when the greens are firm, those small sections are very hard to hit, and you’ve got to really strategize on where you leave it. That’s the whole defense of the golf course.”

Johnson’s Masters victory in November came after several strong showings. He had four consecutive top-10 finishes leading to the win. Except for having to withdraw because of injury in 2017, he went tied for sixth, tied for fourth, tied for 10th and tied for second (with Brooks Koepka) in 2019, a stroke behind Woods, before the breakthrough.

Johnson, ranked No. 1 in the world, said his game is rounding back into shape as he attempts to defend his title. There is some margin in close to the form that led him to the five-shot victory.

“It’s in good shape,” he said. “Maybe not quite as good of shape as it was in November, but I feel like it’s coming together. I’m starting to hit a lot of the same shots and getting a lot more comfortable over the golf ball. Yeah, I feel like it’s in pretty good form.”