“It’s really tight,” said Johnson in a media scrum close to the big oak tree outside the clubhouse. “I was making swings on the range, but could only go 80 per cent. I could make a good back swing, but at impact it was too much. So I don’t think I can compete. It hurts.” You bet it does. The 28-year-old really fancied his chances of becoming the first top-ranked player in the game to win here since Tiger Woods in 2002.
“I want to play more than anything,” added Johnson. “But, when I got to the putting green I realised I just couldn’t swing the club. My left elbow is swollen and bruised, but my lower left back bore the brunt of it. I’m playing the best golf of my career. This is an event I look forward to every year, so to have a freak accident that means I can’t play just sucks, it really does.”
It was a huge blow for the event on a day a number of Europeans, including English trio Matthew Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan and Justin Rose, as well as Belgian Thomas Pieters, got off to encouraging starts as the Alister MacKenzie-designed course bore a full mouth of teeth in blustery conditions.
Johnson’s participation had been thrown into doubt after he slipped on a barewood floor wearing socks as he was going down a small flight of steps at his rented home in Augusta on Wednesday afternoon. He underwent extensive treatment in an effort to play, but, by the sounds of things, it was a losing battle.
“I was doing everything I could – ice, heat, ice last night, when I didn’t get much sleep, but that’s not the issue,” he explained. “The issue is I just can’t make my normal swing.”
Johnson’s misfortune had made it easier for someone to slip into that green jacket on Sunday. If that is to be Jordan Spieth for a second time in three years, he’ll have to overcome another back-nine nightmare at this venue.
Around the time Johnson was withdrawing, Spieth made 3 at the 12th, where he ran up a quadruple-bogey 7 in the final round 12 months ago as he squandered a five-shot lead. The 15th could be the young Texan’s graveyard on this occasion. Another quadruple-bogey – a 9 this time – was caused by error after error. He was in the water, then over the back and capped it all by three-putting. He rarely does that, so was clearly rattled.
“I played the last three holes well,” said Spieth, pictured inset, “and fortunately I’m still in it. The conditions were tough. I didn’t drive the ball particularly well, so I was kind of in some difficult locations today.” As for the 15th, he added: “I didn’t take my medicine after laying up. Instead, I was stuck in the 15‑is‑a‑birdie‑hole mentality, and it kind of bit me a little bit.”
It was a day, in truth, when most players were rattled. Take Pieters, for example. On his debut, the Belgian would probably have settled for a level-par 72 before heading out. Maybe not, though, after he’d gone out in 32 before moving to five-under with a birdie at the 10th. It was a case of “Welcome to Amen Corner” after that. He dropped three shots in two holes, running up a 5 at the 12th. He then took a 6 at the 15th. Some of that damage was repaired by a 2 at the next only to sign off with a 6. “At the start, yeah,” replied Pieters, Europe’s star as a rookie in last year’s Ryder Cup, to being asked if he’d got a lot out of his day. “At the end, nothing. I didn’t really have any bad shots and kind of got penalised. So, it hurts, but not a bad round.”
Fitzpatrick, Sullivan and Rose, who tied for second behind Spieth two years ago, signed for 71s. Taking up where he left off when closing with a 67 a year ago to finish joint-seventh behind compatriot Danny Willett, Fitzpatrick was out in front on three-under before closing with a double-bogey 6. “It was tough,” said Fitzpatrick. “There’s no one going out there shooting an unbelievably low score.”
In contrast to his compatriot, former Scottish Open Stroke-Play champion Sullivan birdied the 18th. “It’s brutal out there,” declared Sullivan of the conditions. “It’s more like an Open Championship today and I’m happy to get it round in under par.”
Others to do that included American William McGirt. A three-under 69 saw him claim the clubhouse lead from Russell Henley, whose 71 had been chiselled out in the opening group of the day. Two other Americans, three-time winner Phil Mickelson and Kevin Chappell, also carded one-under. Mickelson’s round was illuminated by an eagle at the second. It was a solid start as he bids to emulate Jack Nicklaus’ achievement of winning here at the age of 46.
For Scottish duo Russell Knox and Sandy Lyle, it was a tale of two halves. Both were out in level-par 32 before Knox had to settle for a 76 and Lyle, the 1988 winner, signed for one more. “I was almost blown off my feet at the 14th,” reported Knox, who made a messy double-bogey 6 there. “I reckoned two or three-over was going to be par today in the conditions and I’m disappointed. I didn’t get up from the edge of the green a couple of times when my mum could have done it.”
Lyle said he’d “frittered away” shots on the back nine. Asked about the conditions, the Masters veteran – this is his 36th appearance – said: “That’s no fun at all. There was sand blowing out of the bunkers on 18. It was a tough day. You are just hanging in there.”
Mickelson said he’d relished the challenge. “Man, I love it,” he declared. “I thought anything at par or better was going to be a great score and it is.”