Dustin Johnson shot a 1-under 71 Friday at Augusta National Golf Club, which was an improvement of two strokes from his 73 Thursday in the opening round of the 80th Masters Tournament.
The score and improvement seem benign enough.
But on a second consecutive day of swirling winds exceeding 20 mph, firming greens and difficult scoring conditions, the 71 matched the low round of the day and moved Johnson from a tie for 34th into a tie for eighth and into contention at even-par 144.
Johnson is just four shots behind leader Jordan Spieth entering the final two rounds.
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“I feel like I’m in a really good position,” Johnson said. “I’m four back. I flighted my ball really well today, controlled it really well. I didn’t really hit any loose shots and gave myself opportunities all day.
“The golf course is playing really difficult. It’s windy, it seems like it’s swirling on every hole every shot you’re hitting, and the greens are firming up and they’re really fast. It’s going to be tough again tomorrow, so I have to be patient. Anything under par is a great score.”
Wind speeds Saturday are expected to be similar to those in the first two rounds.
“I like the tough conditions. I want it to play tough. You’ve really got to think your way around the golf course and you’ve really got to hit quality golf shots. It makes it fun. Sometimes it’s very frustrating but it makes it fun.”
A 5-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole could have given Johnson Friday’s low round alone and moved him into a tie for fifth, but it slid past the cup.
“I really wanted to make it to get under par for the week,” Johnson said.
Johnson made four birdies and three bogeys Friday, and all of his birdies came on par-5s, improving his par-5 scoring by six shots after playing them 2 over Thursday. A look at Friday’s pin sheet revealed it was going to be difficult to get close to flags on par-3s and par-4s.
“Starting today I knew it was going to be really tough to get it close to a lot of holes, so par-5s were really important today to put myself in a good position to have the best chance of making 4, and I did that on every one of them,” Johnson said.
He hit a 385-yard drive on the par-5 second hole and an approach from 180 yards to 33 feet and two-putted for birdie, and chipped to 10 feet for a birdie on the par-5 eighth.
He went at his drive aggressively on the 510-yard par-5 13th and had just 160 yards to the hole to set up a 14-foot eagle putt that curled just around the lip of the hole, and laid up to 80 yards on the par-5 15th and hit a wedge to 6 feet to make his final birdie.
Johnson scrambled to save a few strokes on the back nine. A drive into the right woods and second shot into the water to the left of the green resulted in a bogey on the 11th, but Johnson avoided a double bogey with a 65-yard wedge to 4 feet. He also made a slippery 5-footer to save par on 16 and a 7-footer for par on 17 before missing the short putt at 18.
“I just have to keep hitting fairways and putting the ball on the green,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m rolling the putter really well, so I just have to be patient.”
Phil Mickelson missed a Masters cut for just the third time in his 24 appearances at Augusta National, though it’s the second time in three years for the three-time winner who tied for second last year.
Fifty-seven of the 89 players entered made the cut, and Mickelson was among those missing by a shot at 7-over 151. Mickelson was 1 under through six holes Friday but made double bogeys on holes 7, 15 and 16 and bogeys on 8, 9 and 11 to make a birdie on the 17th inconsequential.
“I just threw away a lot of shots, just made a lot of poor shots in the wrong spot,” Mickelson said. “This is worst I've managed myself around this golf course. I love this tournament so much, and I've been playing so well, to come in and make some of those mistakes and the doubles and stuff that I made today is very disappointing.”
Others missing the cut included Rickie Fowler, Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace, Zach Johnson, Graeme McDowell and Jason Dufner.
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson was the lone player to make the cut at 6 over solely because of Jordan Spieth’s bogey on the 17th hole because it pulled him within 10 shots of the lead.
Putting with perspective
A trying tournament came to an end for Ernie Els on Friday. It started with a six-putt from 3 feet caused by the yips on the first hole Thursday and concluded Friday with a bounce-back 1-over 73 for a 9-over 153 total.
“A bit of a tough start again,” Els said. “I made a double on the first, missing a very short putt again. But I kind of settled down and played okay. It’s just a pity of yesterday, otherwise I kind of would have been around for the weekend. Yesterday was just absolutely nightmarish”
Els’ putting was much improved Friday, cutting his total number down from 39 to 29 and trimming his three-putt greens from three to one. He struck the ball pretty well, hitting two-thirds of the greens in regulation.
I felt kind of embarrassed. I didn't feel like myself. I don't think I've ever been tested like that ever before – kind of try to just play the golf course, try and get back into my routine, just do my routine, my normal routine, and kind of started playing okay. So, it was a real great test to me. … I've got to address whatever the issue is and see if I can make it better.
Golfer Ernie Els
The Big Easy and four-time major champion said he felt down Friday morning and still didn’t feel right on the first tee, but his demeanor improved as the round progressed. He is entered in the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island next week.
“I felt kind of embarrassed. I didn't feel like myself,” Els said. “I don't think I've ever been tested like that ever before – kind of try to just play the golf course, try and get back into my routine, just do my routine, my normal routine, and kind of started playing okay. So, it was a real great test to me. … I've got to address whatever the issue is and see if I can make it better.”
New bag man
Danny Lee changed caddies just before the Masters, and the new partnership with Mike Hartford is going quite well thus far.
Lee opened with a 68 and shot a 74 Friday that has him tied for third with a 2-under 142 entering the weekend.
“Obviously it worked very well [Thursday],” Lee said. “It was very hard for me to let my ex‑caddie go. It was a very, very tough decision for me, and I'm still a little bit upset about it. But we were thinking about different stuff out on the course, and it wasn't matching up very well.
“And I wanted to bring my A Game this week, because it means a lot. And I prepared myself the last nine tournaments I played at the beginning of the year, and I felt like I was playing really, really good.”
Lee, who is South Korean born, a citizen of New Zealand and a resident of Irving, Texas, arrived in Augusta last Thursday and had several days of practice and practice rounds to become accustomed to Hartford.
“My putting game and short game wasn't that good,” Lee said. “So we've been working very hard on my short game and putting the last couple weeks, and I think I can see some good results coming in.”
Forefront of technology
Augusta National continues to push the envelope when it comes to technological advances that can enhance the experience of its viewers and patrons.
This year, action in Amen Corner is being broadcast in extremely high definition 4K TV on DirecTV. The broadcast is available to viewers who own a 4K TV and have a Genie box combined with a small client box. It’s the first‑ever live broadcast in the U.S. utilizing the new technology.
DirecTV is negotiating to broadcast other sporting events this year in 4K and has a 24-hour 4K channel featuring documentaries and series.
Augusta National is also experimenting with virtual reality viewing of holes 6 and 16 through technology provided by NextVR. With viewing goggles connected to a Samsung Android phone, users can experience the view of a front row seat at tees and greens. “[It] may change the way that our fans choose to enjoy our tournament in the future,” Augusta National and Masters Tournament chairman Billy Payne.
The tournament has also expanded live coverage to two featured groups simultaneously on the Masters.com digital feed and all Masters apps beginning each morning at approximately 9:30.
“We want to deliver our tournament to our fans in the manner in which they wish to receive it,” Payne said.