AUGUSTA, Georgia — Dustin Johnson came within several minutes and a few dozen feet of playing the Masters, considering he was on the practice green near the first tee just before his scheduled start. Then he withdrew at the last instant, adding turbulence to a day in which the air was plenty turbulent on its own.
The gusts of Augusta, combined with the sudden absence of the sport’s No. 1 player, blew away conventional wisdom and brought big surprises. Not the least of which was the fact that Charley Hoffman shot 7-under-par 65, beating the average score by 10 strokes.
“For the lack of a better word, it was a dream,” Hoffman said after having finished the first round at Augusta National with a four-shot lead over runner-up (and first-timer) William McGirt. The anticipated contenders appeared to be remaking another Georgia classic, “Gone with the Wind.” Not one of the top 10 players in the world rankings broke par.
That included Johnson, who gingerly hit balls on the range and did swinging motions on the practice green but determined that his back just would not hold up. He explained that he had injured it Wednesday afternoon when he slipped down three steps in his rented home, onto a hardwood floor.
Johnson said that he slipped while walking in his stocking feet, trying to go out and move the car before his two-year-old son Tatum got home from day care. Therapy overnight and early Thursday did not help. “I could make a good backswing, but every time down, right at impact, it would just catch. I just don’t feel like there is any chance of me even competing,” he said.
“I want to play. I’m playing probably the best golf of my career and this is one of my favorite tournaments of the year,” said the reigning U.S. Open champion who has won his past three starts. “I look forward to it every year and to have a freak accident happen yesterday afternoon, after I got back from the course, it (expletive). It really does.”
Even if he had been healthy, though, it would have been hard to imagine him matching Hoffman. The 40-year-old from San Diego made birdies on seven of his final 10 holes and saved par despite having hit in the water on the par-5 13th. He stoked his own momentum by drilling his tee shot on the par-3 16th within two feet of the hole.
Hoffman is a solid pro (four career victories) and solid citizen (the Charley Hoffman Foundation raises large sums for children’s charities). He had a good run at Augusta two years ago, finishing tied for ninth. Still, he does not have an eye-popping resume. The 2015 Masters was his only top 25 finish in a major championship.
Yes, he has won in the wind and was part of a national title team at UNLV, which often played in blustery conditions. Then again, he pointed to a poor British Open record, adding, “I’ve also played horrible in the wind.”
This simply was his day. He ended up one shot shy of Craig Wood’s 1941 record for the largest first-round lead.
“A few weeks ago, on a week off, I sort of sat back and asked some people what I need to do better and I asked myself what I need to do better. I just had to believe a little bit more,” Hoffman said. “I’m just starting to believe. Seeing putts go in and seeing shots go where you want them to go helps the belief process.
“I look forward to the next few days to see how I handle things.”
Notes & quotes. U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad, who moved to New York after he graduated from USC and plays out of Deepdale Golf Club in Manhasset, was the low amateur at 2-over-par 74. “Even though I didn’t hit it my best, I scored really, really nicely,” he said. “It was a blast.”