Colin Montgomerie remembers Dustin Johnson’s wedge play once being the butt of jokes in a Ryder Cup, but he wouldn’t be surprised if the American had the last laugh by coming out on top in an eagerly-anticipated 81st Masters here this week.
Montgomerie reckons the world No 1 has shown in winning six times in the past nine months, including his last three events and two of them World Golf Championships, that he has developed “discipline” in his game that is a vital component at Augusta National.
The Scot actually fancies Hideki Matsuyama to come out on top in the season’s opening major, having watched the Japanese player hit a purple patch himself in the build up to the Green Jacket contest, but, like many others, he is now seeing a “new” Johnson on the golf course.
“I think he is much more disciplined now and you are not going to win The Masters without a bit of discipline,” said Montgomerie, who is working for the Golf Channel this week. “He went under the radar last year. You forget he finished fourth. He wasn’t even quoted.
“He’s holing out better this year. He’s putting better and also his wedge play has improved dramatically. I remember when the calls came through over the radio from my vice captains in the Ryder Cup [at Celtic Manor in 2010] and they said, ‘Dustin Johnson has a wedge in his hands, don’t worry lads, he’ll miss the green’ and most of the time he did.
“Bloody hell, now it’s five to ten foot most of the time and he’s taking advantage of it. I think the discipline has got a lot better within his game. He’s practised his wedge play very hard and a 450-yard par-4 hole is a driver and wedge for him. Of course, confidence breeds confidence, as we’ve seen from him winning three tournaments in a row. I don’t think anyone has done that coming into a Masters since Hubert Green back in 1976.”
While Johnson is a strong favourite with the bookmakers, Jordan Spieth heads into the event with the best recent record, having finished second-first-second in his three Augusta appearances, while Rory McIlroy, of course, is having his third crack at trying to complete golf’s career Grand Slam.
Montgomerie believes Spieth’s biggest challenge this time around isn’t anyone in the field but a mental one after his back-nine meltdown in the final round last year, when a quadruple-bogey 7 at the 12th opened the door for Danny Willett to become the first Englishman to win the Masters in exactly 20 years. “Jordan has said he’s played the 12th hole in his head lots of time and he’s also been there a few times since last year. I think he’s birdied it five times. That’s fine, but it is a different challenge with a card and pencil in your hand, believe me,” observed Montgomerie.
“You would think there are demons there. And not just on 12. He dropped five shots on 10, 11 and 12 and when he stands on that 10th tee on Thursday he will be thinking about what happened in the final round last year. I hope he handles it and I think he is strong enough to do so. He putts so well. He’s the best putter since Tiger and that’s what you need to do well at Augusta.
“He wasn’t hitting the ball very well going into last year’s event, but this year he’s leading the greens in regulation category on the PGA Tour. If he does that and putts well, my God.”
That’s what McIlroy needs to do more than anything else if he wants to have that coveted coat slipped over his shoulders on Sunday night, according to the Scot. “I think Rory can go under the radar a bit this year,” said Montgomerie of the spotlight being more on both Johnson and Spieth. “But he will have to improve his green work. He hasn’t been up to the standards of winners of the Masters, the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, Bernhard Langer, Woods, Spieth and Phil Mickelson.
“He’s got to have every aspect of his game on song, especially around the greens. He has to improve and he knows that. He’s getting the ball up and down 50 per cent of the time. But the winners at Masters recently have been getting the ball up and down 75 per cent of the time. That’s a massive difference and he has to improve on that. He’s a good pitcher of the ball. It’s the holing from out from Rory that has to be up to winning standard and it hasn’t been yet at this event.”
This, of course, is the 20th anniversary of Woods winning his first major by a record-breaking 12 shots. Montgomerie was the young American’s closest challenger at the halfway stage before being left in his wake as Woods carded a third-round 65 en route to one of the most remarkable triumphs in sport.
“He was out in 40 in the first round, yet won the tournament by 12 shots You’d have expected him to be out in 30. Crikey, imagine if he had been. Quite amazing really,” recalled Montgomerie. “It was something very special, it really was.
“I wasn’t beating the guy that weekend, that’s for sure. It’s a day I will never forget. It’s amazing how time flies, but I remember every shot both of us hit. It was a different golf course he was playing to everybody else. It was the easiest 65 I’ve ever seen. It was an honour and privilege. I didn’t feel that five minutes after I’d finished, but I do now. The progression of him over the next 15 years was quite amazing, winning 14 majors. We’ve all got a lot to thank him for and it’s a pity that he’s not playing this year.”
It is, indeed, but, with so many fascinating storylines, this is shaping up to be fascinating start to the men’s major season. “We look forward to the Masters every year, don’t we, but this one is terrific with the way Dustin Johnson is playing,” observed Montgomerie. Can anyone come up to that level? If Dustin and Rory play their best, who would win between them? That would be great to see. It is all very exciting and I am looking forward to it as a golf fan first and foremost this year. I think it is going to be great.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on Dustin Johnson and he was really tired at the end of the WGC Match Play. Jon Rahm? Who says he can’t become the first player to win on their debut at Augusta since Fuzzy Zoeller. He’s a dark horse, for sure, but I like Matsuyama.
“You instantly think of Spieth, McIlroy and Johnson as potential winners, but this guy is under the radar. He was in the second last group last year, playing with Langer. His putting has much improved and he’s a much better player.
“If I was a gambling man, I’d put my money on Matsuyama to be the first Japanese winner of a major, which would be huge for the game worldwide. I think he might just come up trumps. All the attention is on others. He’s been playing the golf of his life and I think he has every chance.”