Dustin Johnson may find it tough to justify Masters favourite tag

Ewan Murray at August
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Dustin Johnson chips onto the 10th green during Wednesday practice for the 2017 Masters at Augusta.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters</span>
Dustin Johnson chips onto the 10th green during Wednesday practice for the 2017 Masters at Augusta. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Dustin Johnson’s aim at Augusta is simple – to prove recent history matters far more than historical Masters trends.

Welcome to the first major championship of the year, where Johnson is seeking to not only leave the rest of the field lying in the dirt but also to show his maturity has improved to the point where a venue which provided headaches in the past is no longer problematic. If the world No1 really has it all – and plenty of learned observers insist he has – the likelihood of him prevailing is only enhanced by his brilliant form.

Fifteen years have passed since the player arriving at Augusta National as the top-ranked player in the world – Tiger Woods – departed with a Green Jacket. Johnson’s personality is such that a slap around the cheeks with a wet kipper sometimes looks necessary to detect signs of life but even he, surely, feels the level of pressure. The build-up has been intense. Johnson’s problem is that favourites do not commonly win tournaments anywhere, let alone this one.

If the season bounces between US Open, Open Championship and US PGA Championship, the Masters prelude is always different. By the time Daniel Summerhays cracks away the first competitive shot of this tournament, 249 days will have passed from the moment Jimmy Walker holed out at Baltusrol to win the final major of 2016. At that juncture, Johnson was part of the story without enjoying anything like the level of prominence he is now afforded. In his last three starts, the 32-year-old has won, won and won. It will be fascinating to see whether this touch can continue in Georgia.

“At Augusta you either have to be really smart or really dumb,” said Jason Day of the course’s nuances. The subtext hardly needs explaining, that people who do not have the capacity to think through potential hazards might just ignore them. Insert punchline, in Johnson context.

With 94 players representing 20 nations, 19 debutants and five amateurs, inevitably the Masters will not follow a single storyline. Even in times of processional victories, it was ever thus. The first chunk of drama was provided on Wednesday when the traditional curtain-raising par-three tournament was abandoned because of storms.

Day is fascinating, given the emotional family circumstances which have dominated his recent weeks. The Australian has every tool to succeed at Augusta but has spoken in the past of placing too much pressure upon performance. It is reasonable to infer that his emotions might intensify with his mother recuperating after cancer surgery, though there is the flip side that Day might have been afforded deep inspiration. Either way, he is worthy of attention.

Jordan Spieth is arguably as connected to last year’s Masters as Danny Willett, who won. With mental fortitude such a key aspect of Spieth’s work, it would be a shock if his Sunday torture around Amen Corner last year undermines his chances for evermore. But he still has to return to the scene of disaster and deliver, a point not lost on any sportsperson who has watched dreams turn to dust with such rapidity. Spieth’s revisit to the 12th tee alone on Thursday will be a story in itself.

Spieth has an analytical mind and a refusal to bow to the deep shot temptation Augusta offers, which means he actually holds more appeal than Johnson. The Spieth concern, 12 months ago aside, is that he does not enter this Masters in particularly good form.

If body language counts, Rory McIlroy’s Masters aspirations – and the career grand slam of majors attached – are more valid than ever before. A calm, contented McIlroy has tried to remove the mystique of Augusta by making a string of off-peak visits with family and friends. This suggests an earlier psychological barrier which the Northern Irishman identified as detrimental to glory.

In basic scorecard terms, it is not difficult to see where McIlroy must improve; he has made at least two double bogeys or worse in six of his eight Masters starts. You need go back to 1982 to find the last champion who had more than one double bogey over 72 holes.

Bubba Watson’s two Green Jackets have not been enough for him to be widely tipped this year and the same goes for the reigning Open champion, Henrik Stenson. Instead, the emerging talents of Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas have seen their names up in Masters lights.

Reflection will be natural. This marks the first Masters since the death of Arnold Palmer, whose status was intrinsically linked to Augusta. Palmer is labelled as “The most beloved king” in these parts. His name and record has been left in the players guide book for posterity.

The Thursday morning honorary starter scene will be curious, surely, for Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player without their fellow legend on the premises. It might seem contrived to label this Masters in Palmer’s honour – which will not prevent some from trying – but it would be endearing if the victor emerged in the four-times champion’s swashbuckling style.

Exactly 20 years have now passed since Woods endorsed promises of greatness by dismantling the Augusta field. Amid widespread insistence that Woods is finished or somehow, strangely, deserving of such a steep decline now, it is valid to examine what the 41-year-old has contributed to his sport. Woods enhanced golf, its prize funds and wider appeal.

From a Thursday back nine of 30 in 1997, Woods duly vanished over the horizon for the best part of a decade. Now would be an opportune time to reflect on his brilliance rather than condemn the 14-times major champion for his current, dilapidated condition.

Nicklaus, the 1986 winner when aged 46, believes Phil Mickelson has a much greater opportunity at precisely the same age. The left-hander himself insists his play backs up this confidence, even if putting problems have undermined his start to the year.

The case for Willett producing a successful Masters defence would be a stretch for the finest legal minds to deliver. More legitimate is the notion that some of his compatriots – Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick to name but four – will take inspiration from the events of 2016. Rose has produced more combined birdies and eagles over the past five Masters years than anyone. It is, in fact, strange that he has not yet backed up the US Open triumph of 2013.

Tea Olive, Pink Dogwood, Flowering Peach, Flowering Crab Apple, Magnolia, Juniper, Pampas, Yellow Jasmine, Carolina Cherry, Camellia, White Dogwood, Golden Bell, Azalea, Chinese Fir, Firethorn, Redbud, Nandina and Holly. Eighteen hole names so gentle it seems implausible that such drama, such occasional destruction, can be produced. Johnson might seem best placed to tame the beast but detail suggests he is not a wise bet against the field.

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