They wondered what could stop Dustin Johnson at this 81st Masters. The answer was three small stairs at his rental property, which ultimately forced the world No 1 and tournament favourite to withdraw in dramatic circumstances on the first tee moments before his starting time. “It sucks really bad,” Johnson said
The world No 1’s crestfallen image was the enduring image of a windy first round in which the Augusta National bared its notorious teeth.
It seemed to take chunks out of everyone, except for Charley Hoffman, the unfancied American who slipped the field. Fine player though he is, nobody but his loved ones was mentioning Hoffman’s name in a build-up concentrated on Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. But there is the 40-year-old from California, four clear on seven-under
Spieth suffered. Last year, the American saw a five-shot lead disappear on the back nine courtesy of a quadruple bogey seven on the par-three 12th. It was another quadruple yesterday causing the havoc, this time a nine on the par-five 15th. Spieth is not yet out of it after a 75, but his insistence that Augusta holds no demons for him, looks more suspect than ever.
Johnson, however, will believe Spieth to be one of the lucky ones. After three wins in his last three events, he came here so confident of adding to the US Open he won last year. But as he got ready to pick up his two-year-old son, Tatum, from day-care on Wednesday afternoon so the freak accident happened. “'I was wearing socks and slipped and went down the three stairs,' Johnson explained. 'The left side of my lower back took the brunt of it and my left elbow is bruised as well.
Johnson still believed he could play after a night spent applying ice and then heat before going through the process over and over. It was in his favour that he was drawn in the final three-ball going out at 2.03pm and the morning report from his camp was optimistic.
The 32-year-old arrived at the course at 12,30pm followed a therapy session,. He lasted 15 minutes on the range, hitting easy wedges, but was in obvious discomfort and soon departed for the physio truck. He returned after 10 minutes of treatment, but it was obvious he was losing the race against time when his caddie – his brother Austin – had to tee up his balls. Johnson could not even bend over.
After another five minutes Johnson consulted his coach, Butch Harmon, and then Fred Ridley, the chairman of the competition committee, joined the discussion. He advised Johnson that a physio could accompany him on the course and that he could receive treatment. Johnson told a reporter: “I’m going to give it a go.”
Yet after joining Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker on the first tee he took a few practice swings, grimaced and walked off back to the clubhouse. There was less than three minutes until the tee time.
“I was doing everything I could to try to play, but I just don’t feel like there’s any chance of me even competing," Johnson said.
“I want to play, more than anything. I just can’t swing the club. I’m playing the best golf of my career and this is one of my favorite tournaments of the year."
The galleries plainly agreed. There were gasps when he signaled his intent to withdraw. Johnson is indisputably the form player in the game, having won two World Golf Championships in succession, as well as the LA Open. And having made his major breakthrough at Oakmont , he seemed set to follow up on his tie for fourth last year. However, he must now wait.
Spieth displayed a different sort of agony on the 15th. Every eyeball was focused on him when he arrived on the 12th, the capricious 155-yarder over Rae’s Creek which had so much to crush his dreams of winning back-to-back greenjackets.
Spieth held firm and found the back of the green and when he two-putted for par the 23-year-old’s Augusta exorcism seemed complete. It was Hallelujah at Amen Corner. Alas, the ghouls had merely skipped forward a few holes. Spieth resisted the urge to go the green at the 530-yard par-five 15th, laying up in two.
His caution was misplaced. He hit his wedge into the water guarding the green and then flew his fifth shot over the putting surface. A chip and three putts and he was recording his biggest ever single-hole score in his PGA Tour career. Spieth fared well to limit the day’s damage to three-over, which is 10 off the runaway pacesetters but only six back of another American in second in William McGirt in second.
Hoffman’s 65 was an extraordinary effort, even if the conditions had calmed by the denouement of his round. He is made nine birdies including five out of six holes from the 12th. Hoffmann is a four-time winner on the PGA Tour, but his only top 10 in major was recorded here two years ago, when he finished in a tie for ninth. He is in a rarefied atmosphere now. "It was the round of my career," he said.
In third is Lee Westwood, showing his fondness for Augusta yet again. The 43-year-old reeled off five birdies in succession from the 13th to move from three-over to two-under. Last year, the Englishman finished second to Danny Willett, but the champion has been enduring a dreadful run recently. Willett began with a double-bogey but retained his composure to post a commendable 73.
Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose and Andy Sullivan all shot 71s as the record 11-strong English representation set about proving the old adage of strength in numbers. Paul Casey is on level par, the same mark as McIlroy who switched around his usual Augusta narrative and turned a 77 into a 72, with some brilliant scrambling and a huge slice of fortune on the 13th when his ball stayed on the bank when it appeared destined for the water. Out in 39, back in 33, McIlroy is nicely poised.