Dustin Johnson set to defend the Masters title

Dustin Johnson made merry on a soft autumn course when he won in November with a record 20-under 268, faces much firmer conditions in its traditional spot on the calendar

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Dustin Johnson - Charles Laberge - Augusta National

07 April 2021: Since the Tournament’s inception in 1934, only three times has the defending Masters champion managed to retain his coveted title. Jack Nicklaus pulled off the feat in 1966, Nick Faldo in 1990 and Tiger Woods in 2002.

The defending Masters champion returns to extra attention and heightened expectations at Augusta National, not to mention the honor and responsibility of hosting the Champions Dinner. But just a few hours before serving a down-home menu of pigs in a blanket, mashed potatoes, steak and seabass to one of the most exclusive gatherings in golf, Dustin Johnson seemed as an unflappable as ever Tuesday afternoon.

Despite having had only one top-10 finish since his victory here five months ago, when he set the Tournament scoring record of 20-under par on a soft autumn course, he remains the world’s No. 1-ranked player. Currently, he said, his game is in good shape.

“Maybe not quite as good of shape as it was in November,” Johnson said, “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.”

Given the Masters’ return to its traditional place on the calendar, the first full week in April, and the recent spell of warm, dry weather in Augusta, Johnson and rest of the 88-man field will face a much different golf course than they did in the fall. The fairways and greens, so far, at least – there’s a chance of rain later in the week – are decidedly firmer, demanding precision off the tee and into the greens. The putting surfaces are as quick as some players can remember them ever being.

“With the course being firm and fast like it is, you’re definitely going to have to be a little more careful about where you hit the ball,” Johnson said, noting that shots are “bouncing a good bit.”

He stopped short, however, of describing the challenges of Augusta National this week as being radically different from those in November.

“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.”

Known for his stoicism, as well as his long drives and loping gait, Johnson showed an emotional side of himself after his Masters victory last year, his second major title among 24 PGA Tour wins. He wiped tears from his eyes as Tiger Woods, the 2019 champion, draped a Green Jacket over him at the ceremony beside the 18th green.

Afterward, speaking to reporters who over the years had become accustomed to scribbling down laconic answers to their questions, Johnson opened up about what the victory meant to him. He recalled having dreams of winning the Masters as he would practice for hours as a boy at the Weed Hill Driving Range in Columbia, S.C., a little over an hour from Augusta.

On Tuesday, he said having his brother, Austin – once his fellow junior golfer and dreamer – as his caddie made the experience even more special.

“It’s great having him on the bag,” he said, “and obviously having him caddying last year when I won the Masters was really, really special, and it’s one of those things that you’ll never forget.”

 

Paul Rogers at Augusta National – masters.com