Dustin Johnson is back at Augusta National, ready to contend

ablondin@thesunnews.comApril 8, 2014 

SPORTS GLF-MASTERS 31 CS

GERRY MELENDEZ — MCT

— As much as Dustin Johnson needed the two days of rest and bit of physical therapy he received for a stiff back that led to his withdrawal from the Shell Houston Open on Thursday, the panacea Johnson was seeking was his trip down Magnolia Lane on Sunday.

The back is all better this week.

“Coming out here it relaxes you a bit,” Johnson said. “For a golfer there is no better place. I grew up right down the road. It’s my favorite place to come every year. I love it. Just being here on the grounds is cool. I’m always excited to come here.”

The Columbia native is off to the best start of his seven-year PGA Tour career, notwithstanding the 80 he shot Thursday, and he can think of no better place to keep the roll going than Augusta National Golf Club and the 78th Masters Tournament.

“The game is perfect. It’s good,” Johnson said. “I’m hitting it well, putting it well, so I’m looking forward to getting started here.”

Johnson won the $8.5 million World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in China in early November to begin his 2013-14 season, and in six events since he has tied for sixth in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in early January, finished second in both the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and Northern Trust Open in February, and tied for fourth in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in early March.

“I’ve been playing really well all year,” said Johnson, whose 80 was his worst round of the season by six shots and is his only competitive round in more than four weeks. “Since Shanghai I’ve really played good golf. I’ve got a lot of confidence right now. I’ve had a little bit of time off, but it’s nice to get back out here and it’s always great to come to Augusta.”

Johnson leads the PGA Tour in several statistics, including the all-around ranking, birdie average and par-breakers stat, and is second in earnings at $3.35 million despite teeing off in just seven events, the fewest among anyone in the top 10 and six fewer than money leader Jimmy Walker.

Johnson, 29, has won eight PGA Tour events, including at least one in each of his seven seasons on tour, and he’s still seeking his first major title.

The Masters has heretofore been the most difficult for the Coastal Carolina alumnus and Myrtle Beach homeowner. The 78th Masters will be Johnson’s 20th major, and he has either held a final-round lead or finished second in each of the other three.

After three finishes between 30th and 38th in his first three Masters appearances through 2011 – he missed the 2012 event with a back injury – Johnson’s tie for 13th last year is his best Augusta finish, and he held a lead through 27 holes before a rough back nine in the second round.

“I love this golf course. I think it sets up really well for me,” Johnson said. “The few prior years I never really played that well here. It didn’t have anything to do with the golf course; it was just me. I’ve gotten more comfortable with it, I think I understand how to play it a little bit better, and then I think the golf game is better too.”

His back won’t be a problem this week, Johnson assures. He returned to practicing Sunday, when he played nine holes at Augusta National.

“It was just a little stiff. It’s no injury or anything like that,” Johnson said. “I’m feeling great, 100 percent fine, and I’m ready to go. I was working out hard last week and it just tightened up on me a little bit. But I’m 100 percent fine.”

This will be the first Masters that Johnson will play with his younger brother, Austin, on the bag. Austin began caddying for him as a fill-in in late November in Shanghai, and Johnson won the $8.5 million event for arguably the biggest win of his career.

“When we won in Shanghai, it was probably the best day of my life – just watching him and the joy it brought to him – and hopefully this week we get to share another special moment together,” Austin said.

Johnson named Austin his full-time caddy shortly after the win, and the victory combined with Johnson’s successive high finishes have allowed the business relationship to blossom, quelling any potential second-guessing of Johnson for the nepotistic decision and relieving any pressure Austin would have felt had his brother played poorly.

“I was concerned when I first started,” Austin said. “I didn’t want him to go into a rut there and I get all the blame. It would have been easy to blame me. But luckily he played very well and so far it has worked out. … It has definitely taken a little weight off the shoulders making the switch and having early success.”

Austin, who hits the ball a long way like his brother but generally shoots in the 80s rather than the 60s, is a benefit more for his personality than his knowledge of the game or caddying.

“I keep him focused,” Austin said. “I know his personality, you know, I’ve been knowing it his whole life. I know when to stay out of the way, when to chime in and I feel we’ve had a good mix so far.”

Having an inexperienced caddie has led Johnson to go through the pre-shot routine of checking yardages, assessing conditions and selecting clubs, and that has helped the inherently fast golfer play more at the pace of rounds on the PGA Tour.

“It slows me down a little bit,” Johnson said. “My issue sometimes is I’m maybe a little too fast. I pay a little more attention, so it has helped. It helps me think a little bit better.”

Last fall, Austin had recently graduated from College of Charleston – he transferred from Charleston Southern, where he played on the men’s basketball team – and was looking for a job. “I found a pretty good one,” he said.

Austin is still friends with the caddie he replaced, Bobby Brown, who had been Johnson’s caddie for the majority of his career over two stints. In fact, he is roommates with Brown’s son in a Mount Pleasant apartment, and he plays occasional rounds with Brown at Bulls Bay Golf Club.

Austin said he is not concerned about job security. “He can’t fire me from being his brother, that’s for sure,” he joked.

To view Blondin’s blog, Green Reading, or Twitter page, @alanblondin, visit myrtlebeachonline.com.

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.

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