The Masters is, unsurprisingly, Dustin Johnson’s favorite tournament on the professional golf calendar.
Until Thursday, it was also the only major championship in which the Columbia native never had been a factor. He changed that with a first-round 67 to put him one shot off the lead heading into Friday’s second round.
“It’s always one that I look forward to playing and enjoy coming here,” he said. “My friends and family get to come down and watch. You know, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve played OK here in the past, just not great. It feels good.”
It was Johnson’s best round in three trips to Augusta National Golf Club and the second time he has shot in the 60s.
“This is one of those courses, the more you play it, the more you get to know it,” he said. “You kind of know where you need to hit it so you can actually have a chance to get up and down or you know what side of the fairway to miss it on at certain flags. Every time you play here, you learn something about the golf course.”
Johnson, who missed last year’s Masters because of a back injury, never has finished better than 30th here, but he looked comfortable in an afternoon group that never had to deal with the inclement weather many feared would move into the area Thursday afternoon.
The 28-year-old practiced at Augusta less this year than he has in the past, he said, playing 27 holes on Monday and Tuesday.
“I didn’t wear myself out,” he said.
Johnson is one stroke behind veteran Spaniard Sergio Garcia and Australian Marc Leishman.
Garcia’s share of the lead is one of his few moments in the spotlight recently. Once known as “El Nino” and tabbed Tiger Woods’ top rival, he has won once on the PGA Tour since 2008. Last year’s 12th-place finish at Augusta was his best since finishing eighth in 2002.
“Low expectations? That may be what you were thinking,” said Garcia, who played one group ahead of Johnson. “Anytime I tee off in a tournament, my goal is to play the best I can and have a chance of winning. Today was a nice day, a day you really, really enjoy. Hopefully, I will have three more of those.”
Only a bogey on No. 18 kept 53-year-old fan favorite Fred Couples from sharing second place with Johnson. Couples shot a 4-under 68 to lead a group of six golfers two shots off the lead.
Matt Kuchar, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, David Lynn, Rickie Fowler and Trevor Immelman also finished at 4-under, and Woods lurked at 2-under.
Defending champion Bubba Watson shot a 75 and can’t afford to give up more ground if he hopes to make tonight’s cut, which will include the top 50 players and all players within 10 shots of the lead.
Johnson, who is sixth in the FedExCup standings, started the 2013 season with a win in the Hyundai Tournament but then faltered through six consecutive events that saw him finish no higher than 33rd. He began to turn his year around in March with a 12th-place finish in the WGC-Cadillac Championship and he finished tied for fourth two weeks ago at the Shell Houston Open.
Johnson carded an eagle, four birdies and a bogey and twice (at Nos. 1 and 9) chipped in from off the green. He looked like he would awake this morning with a share of the first-round lead, but his drive off the 440-yard 17th went wide right, leaving him no shot at the green. After laying up just short of the green, he chipped to within 10 feet but couldn’t make the putt and bogeyed.
The highlight of the round was an eagle on the 510-yard, par-5 13th that dropped him from 3-under to 5-under. He hit driver and then a 9-iron to within 15 feet before making the eagle putt.
Garcia and Johnson, who both represent Adidas among other brands, were dressed in the same outfit Thursday, but the lucky black and green shirts didn’t seem too pleased with the matching look.
“Well, we are not wearing the same outfit because we want to,” he said. “This is Adidas; they script our clothing this week. We are wearing the same outfit because they told us to.”
Johnson was asked if he would be happier wearing the outfit of the Augusta National member who introduced him before his news conference, meaning the traditional green jacket given to the Masters winner.
“I would love to,” he said.