Coastal Carolina alumnus Dustin Johnson carried a career-high Official World Golf Ranking of 11th and some increased expectations into his third Masters Tournament this week.
Despite ideal scoring conditions with warm temperatures and no wind for Thursday's opening round, Johnson got off to a rough start with a 2-over-par 74 that has him in a tie for 64th in the 99-player field.
"For the weather it doesn't get any easier than this. It played pretty easy today," Johnson said. "I struggled a little bit. I drove it well and I've been struggling with the driver. But I didn't make any putts. I three-putted a few times and missed a few short ones, which hurt me pretty bad."
Johnson put in extra work in the past few weeks by making several trips to Augusta National Golf Club, mainly to become more familiar with the greens and the best locations to miss approach shots.
Johnson hit 10 of 14 fairways off the tee and 12 of 18 greens, but he took 31 putts, including a pair of three-putts, and was unable to get up and down to save par from the two greenside bunkers he found.
"I was a little frustrated, just really couldn't get anything going with the putter," Johnson said. "My speed was pretty good today, it's just really hard to read these greens. Even when you hit them in there close you're kind of putting almost a little defensively unless you've got uphill putts, and it seemed like I was putting downhill all day."
Johnson was 3 over with five bogeys and two birdies through 13 holes. He rallied with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 13th and stuck his second shot to 4 feet on the par-4 14th for a second birdie to get back to 1 over heading to the par-5 15th.
He hit a big drive and was poised for at least another birdie, but his second shot sailed into the crowd to the right of the green. He chipped to 20 feet, his fast downhill putt ran 5 feet past the hole and he made par. Johnson missed about a 3-foot putt on the 16th hole to make bogey, made par on the par-4 17th and missed a 10-foot birdie putt to settle for par on the par-4 18th.
"I was feeling good, made a couple birdies and got to 1 over, then I hit it right down the middle on 15 and hit a really poor iron shot there ... then missed a little short one on 16 for par," Johnson said. "I just never could get anything going today."
Believing he needs a low round to be in any kind of position to make a run on the weekend, Johnson said he intends to play aggressively today.
"I've got to shoot a good number tomorrow, so I'll come out firing and see what happens," Johnson said. "It's just the first round. I played pretty poorly. But it's right there. I'm driving it well so if I can hit some good iron shots tomorrow and hole a few putts we'll be all right."
A watchful eye
Johnson has instructor Butch Harmon on Augusta National's grounds to help him get his game straight. Johnson managed to get his share of time on the range this week with Harmon, who also instructs other Masters participants including defending champion Phil Mickelson.
The two have been working on shortening Johnson's backswing without affecting his clubhead speed through the ball, and keeping the flex in his legs throughout the swing. As they have for the better part of the past year, they've also been working diligently on honing in Johnson's wedge distances from 150 yards in.
"It's no coincidence that we always seem to play good when Butchie is in town," said Johnson's caddie, Bobby Brown.
Hearts on homeland
Four players from Japan were already hoping they could lift their countrymen's spirits this week following the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake that hit the country on March 11, and they learned on the course of a 7.1 earthquake that hit Thursday.
It was the strongest aftershock since the earthquake and tsunami killed as many as 25,000 people and touched off a nuclear crisis last month.
Ryo Ishikawa, 19, teed off before the earthquake hit and didn't know about it until he spoke to reporters following a 71 that has him tied for 24th. "It feels like we can't relax because of the situation," Ishikawa said. "I am a bit worried."
Ishikawa has already pledged to donate his entire tournament earnings this year plus an additional $1,200 per birdie toward relief efforts, and believes he can best serve Japan on the golf course.
"I would love to go back to Japan, but I think I would like to play my best this week," Ishikawa said. "I understand that people, especially in Sendai, are living in hell, and I would love to show the energy and power of what golf can bring to those people."
Ishikawa's countryman Hiroyuki Fujita is tied for 14th at 2-under 70, amateur Hideki Matsuyama, who won the Asian Amateur to earn an invitation to Augusta, is tied for 31st at 72 but was 3 under before bogeys on the final three holes, and Yuta Ikeda is tied for 64th at 74.
Garcia back on course
A break from the game may just have done Sergio Garcia some good.
After missing the cut at the PGA Championship last August, Garcia took a 10-week break from golf to see if he could rediscover enthusiasm for the game, as well as his own game. The one-time No. 2 player in the world fell as far as No. 85 in the world while struggling mightily with the putter.
He's in the Masters based on his three-year exemption for winning the 2008 Players Championship, and is now No. 73.
Garcia has played in three European Tour events this season, tied for 15th in the Transitions Championship three weeks ago in his first tournament in the U.S. in seven months, and followed that up with an eighth-place finish in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at difficult Bay Hill.
He continued the momentum with a 3-under 69 Thursday, including birdies on holes 2, 3 and 5, an eagle on the par-5 13th with a 6-iron from 189 yards to 15 feet, a birdie on 14 and bogey on 18. "I would have loved to make par on the last, but any time you shoot under par here it's a positive," Garcia said. "I hit a lot of quality shots. I felt like it was a good solid day. I think I played nicely."
Garcia has threatened at Augusta, finishing eighth in 2002 with a final-round 75 after being no worse than in fourth through each of the first three rounds, and closing with a 66 in 2004 to tie for fourth.
"I'm not going to lie to you, my confidence is not where it should be," Garcia said. "Some of the shots and some of the putts today might have gone in if it were. But it's definitely better, and this course is a tough course to build confidence. The important thing is I feel I'm going on the right track. I feel good about the game."