AUGUSTA, Ga. — Here’s the great thing about winning the Masters: while you might have to give back the green jacket when you leave Augusta National, they never truly take it away from you.
Dustin Johnson knows he has the one he earned in November, one that will always be in his locker on the second floor of the clubhouse. And so stepping to the tee Thursday for the first round of his defense meant a feeling of calm.
“No additional pressure,” Johnson said of his first round as defending champion. “If anything, I’m a little more relaxed out there. Today, it just played tough.”
And that was the story of the first round of the 2021 Masters.
Johnson shot 2-over-par 74, making a frustrating double bogey-6 at the 18th hole. It broke a streak of 11 straight sub-par rounds at Augusta dating to an opening-round 73 in 2018.
Course conditions were nothing like players saw five months ago when the Masters was played in November due to the coronavirus pandemic. Johnson found it to his liking then, shooting a tournament-record 268 (20 under) to win his second major championship.
Things were different Thursday. Much different.
“I felt like I played pretty well, too,” Johnson said. “Got it around pretty well. Obviously, the last hole kind of stings a little bit. But go to the range, hit a few plays. I feeling like I’m swinging well, playing good. Looking forward to the rest of the week.”
Johnson, however, admits his game is not quite at the level that it was in November.
The No. 1-ranked player in the world, Johnson came into the Masters after some middling results, by his standards. He didn’t make the final 16 at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship; and he was way out of contention at the Players Championship (tie for 48th) and the WGC-Workday Championship (T4).
That followed an impressive stretch of golf. Over his previous 11 tournaments dating back to the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in August, Johnson never finished out of the top 12. He had seven top-3 finishes in that stretch, including three victories — his last at the Saudi International in February.
But Johnson, who led the field in greens in regulation at the Masters in November, hit just 10 of 18 on Thursday. He also had two three-putt greens. And after chipping in for a birdie at the 11th and making another at the par-5 13th, he was not able to finish strong, making a bogey at the 16th and then running into trouble at the 18th.
After a wayward drive into the right trees, Johnson punched through to the far side of the green, from where he pitched to 35 feet past the pin. He then three-putted, missing a 4-footer.
The good news is the conditions were such that nobody could run away with the tournament. The bad news is Johnson still has some ground to make up with a game that is not quite at the level it was when he won here five months ago.
“It’s not quite as sharp as it was,” Johnson said. “It’s more the irons aren’t quite as sharp as they were. I feel like I’m driving it good and putting it good. Just need to dial the irons in a little bit.”