Johnson wants to defend himself as the sense of normalcy returns to Masters

© Reuters. The master

From Frank Pingue

(Reuters) – The Masters returns to its traditional date this week as the first major of the year at Augusta National and Dustin Johnson is the man to be beaten on a layout that, while familiar, plays and plays much differently looks like the one he triumphed on five a few months ago.

Colorful, blooming azaleas set against emerald fairways and greens will again be seen in full contrast to the fall foliage that created a pretty unique backdrop last year when COVID-19 forced the Masters to be played in November.

And in contrast to the soft conditions that a well-shaped Johnson with blistered drives, laser-like approaches, and solid results took full advantage of on the way to his record performance, the course conditions could prove to be very different this time around.

“If it’s soft again, you can get some low scores,” said Johnson. “But when it’s firm and fast, as I imagined, the golf course plays very differently and is much more difficult.”

A win for Johnson, whose 20-under grand last year broke the Masters record shared by Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, would put him in elite company. Only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods successfully defended Masters victories.

But world number one Johnson will have his work cut out for him, especially when you factor in the compelling games his competitors play – notably Justin Thomas, new dad Jon Rahm and reigning US Open winner Bryson DeChambeau.

Thomas has improved on each of his five Masters starts, most recently finishing fourth in November, and he’s warmed up since then, including a win last month at The Players Championship, the golf’s unofficial fifth major.

Rahm, who finished in the top 10 in the Masters for the past three years and even had a stake in the mid-way lead last November, previously said he would be leaving Augusta National on short notice to attend the birth of his child be .

Fortunately for the Spaniard, his wife gave birth to their boy on Saturday.

‘DECHAMBEAU TAKE TWO’

DeChambeau will be eager to see another jump at the Masters after an attempt to overwhelm Augusta National with his brutal strength in November when he was the pre-tournament favorite to turn into a dud.

DeChambeau, who said he had dizziness and stomach aches during the Masters last year, barely made it, but has since won his eighth PGA Tour title with his win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, followed by a third place a week later at The player.

“It will be harder to come to Augusta than the last time we saw it, less crowded and hopefully better,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said of DeChambeau.

“And Bryson DeChambeau won two at the Masters in 2021. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gave us all the excitement we expected in 2020.”

Former champion Spieth, who finished third or better in four of his first five Masters starts from 2014, is starting the week after a good run of form and a triumph at the Texas Open that triggered an almost four-year winless drought.

Rory McIlroy, who returned from opening 75 to fifth last year, is struggling with swing issues but will be part of the conversation that goes into the first round on Thursday as this is his seventh attempt at the career Complete the Grand Slam of the four majors of golf.

“The golf course is such a good fit for Rory’s game. If he can find something out there he has a great chance even if he doesn’t come the year he plays great,” said Andy North, ESPN golf analyst.

Particularly absent from this year’s Masters is five-time Champion Woods, who is recovering at home after sustaining career-threatening leg injuries in a vehicle accident in February that resulted in a three-week hospital stay.

Unlike last year’s Masters, which was only played in front of club members, the media, family members and close friends of the players, Augusta National has announced that it will only welcome a limited number of viewers this week.

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