The Masters Tournament is the only major in which Dustin Johnson hasn’t suffered heartbreak.
That makes it the only major in which he hasn’t truly been in contention for a title on a Sunday.
Johnson’s runner-up finishes in the 2011 British Open and last year’s U.S. Open, and ties for eighth in the 2010 U.S. Open and fifth in the 2010 PGA Championship all came with the Coastal Carolina alumnus in position to win in the final round.
He hasn’t had that opportunity in six visits to Augusta National Golf Club, where he believes his game translates well, but he’s trending upward in the past few years.
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A tie for sixth last year is his best finish, surpassing a tie for 13th in 2013, though he entered last year’s final round 10 shots behind winner Jordan Spieth.
“To me this is probably the biggest one of the four [majors], being as it’s so close to where I grew up,” the Columbia native said. “Last year I felt like I played a little bit better around here. This golf course is one of those courses where all parts of your game need to be working. This year, I feel like I’m coming in with a pretty solid game. I feel like every part of my game is improving.”
Johnson’s nine PGA Tour wins, athletic ability and close calls in majors have him in the conversation for the title “Best Player Without a Major Title,” along with contenders Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler.
“If your name’s getting mentioned as best player … whatever comes after that, is usually pretty good,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to say it’s positive, you know.
“I still feel like my time’s coming [in majors]. I’ve just got to keep putting myself in position to have a chance to win. One of these days I will get it done.”
Many of his peers believe he will. “Dustin’s not going to end his career without a major,” Fowler said. “He’s too good of a player.”
Notoriously a player who quickly puts events on the golf course behind him, Johnson said he is more encouraged than discouraged by his near misses in majors. So he focuses on the driver and 5-iron he hit on the 18th hole at Chambers Bay in last year’s U.S. Open to set up a 15-foot eagle putt to win rather than the three-putt that cost him the championship.
“I don’t look at any of them as scar tissue,” Johnson said. “I try to take every situation, good or bad, and just try to learn from them and use the experiences that I’ve had.
“You know, even like last year at the U.S. Open, to me that gives me a lot of confidence, that if I’m in that situation on Sunday I know I can get it done. I know I can hit the shots that I need to hit and put myself in position to have a chance to win again.”
Johnson has become a mainstay on leaderboards – majors or not. He finished in the top 10 in more than half of his starts last year – 11 of 21 – and this year he has finished outside the top 20 just once in eight starts. He has struggled in some final rounds, however, shooting an 80 in inclement weather at the Farmers Insurance Open to tie for 18th, and shooting a 79 in the final round of the WGC Cadillac Championship to tie for 14th.
On Sunday, he closed with a 3-under 69 to finish third at 13-under 275 in the Shell Houston Open, two strokes behind winner Jim Herman.
“That’s the goal is to become more consistent and always contend,” Johnson said. “Every week I tee it up, I want to contend for a title. That’s been my goal for a long time is to get my game to where it’s consistently better. I think over the last couple years, it’s gotten consistently better where I’m contending a lot. Even when I don’t feel like I’m playing well, I’m still keeping myself in it. That’s always the goal.”
Johnson now hopes to become a more consistent closer.
He has nine PGA Tour wins, including at least one in his first eight years on tour – joining Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in the four-person club – but he has won more than once in a season just once in 2010.
He’s still looking for a breakout year at age 31, and a major championship could be the linchpin to multiple victories and a huge season.
Johnson has shown he’s capable of doing things at Augusta with his prodigious length that few others can. He eagled holes 2, 8 and 15 in the second round last year to become the only player in Masters history to record three eagles in a round, and in the final round in 2009 he played holes 13 through 15 5-under par with eagles on 13 and 14 and a birdie on 15 to become just the third player in tournament history with consecutive eagles.
“This is a golf course where I think that a lot of things have got to go your way to have a chance to win on Sunday,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be doing everything well. It’s tough. It doesn’t reward mediocre shots. You’ve got to hit all of them in the right spots, and when you do miss it, you have to make sure you miss it in the right spot.
“I think the more I play it, the more comfortable I get here, the more I know kind of where you have to hit it to certain flags.”
Johnson, who led the PGA Tour in driving distance last year at 317.7 yards, has room to improve with the short clubs.
In 2015 he ranked 119th in scrambling on the PGA Tour, his 38.6 sand-save percentage ranked 178th, and his best streak of four sand saves in a row ranked 206th. He also ranked 121st on tour in putting inside of 10 feet.
Johnson has improved his putting greatly in recent Masters tournaments and it has led to his two top finishes. He finished fourth in the field in putts per round in 2013 with 27.75 and was first with 26.5 last year.
“I feel like I hit the ball pretty well most of the time,” said Johnson, who traveled to Augusta between tournaments in Texas for three days of practice last Sunday through Tuesday. “I think if I chip and putt it well, and play bunkers well, then I’m going to compete and have a chance to win on Sunday.”
Butch Harmon, Johnson’s swing coach, identified wedge play as an area for growth when the two began working together in 2010 and it remains a focus today. Johnson said he’s worked extensively on wedge play over the past couple months and has seen improvement.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of confidence in every part of my game right now, especially with my wedges,” Johnson said. “I’ve been working really hard on my wedges and I feel like that’s improved a lot over the last six weeks. I can definitely see improvement in that. I think that’s something that’s going to help me around here.”
2016 Masters participants with the most top 10s in major championships without a victory:
Sergio Garcia: 20
Lee Westwood: 17
Dustin Johnson: 10
Henrik Stenson: 9
Hunter Mahan: 8
Ian Poulter: 8
Matt Kuchar: 7
Brandt Snedeker: 7
Rickie Fowler: 6