Dustin Johnson might have been the most high profile victim of Thursday at the 81st Masters but he proved far from the only one. It was just that the circumstances as impacting on Johnson were unique.
In one of the more dramatic major scenes of recent times, the world No1 withdrew from this event on Augusta National’s first tee having decided at the very last minute that the back injury sustained with a fall down stairs on Wednesday afternoon was too big a hindrance to compete. Johnson lost his footing whilst wandering around his wooden-floored rental home in socks; had he chosen to watch what golf did take place on day one here, analogies to ice walls and slippers could have sprung to mind.
“I was making swings on the range but could only go 80%,” Johnson explained. “I could make a good backswing but at impact it was too much. So I don’t feel like there was any chance of me competing. It hurts.
“I was doing everything I could to play. I was up most of last night using ice, using heat, using ice again. I was desperate to get it ready for this morning. I just can’t make my normal swing because of my lower left back. I didn’t get much sleep but that’s not the issue. I want to play. The issue is I just can’t swing.”
Johnson’s upset was perfectly understandable. He arrived in Georgia having won three tournaments in a row. The fact he will remain as the top ranked player in the world, regardless of Masters outcome, will prove little consolation. Owing to a bizarre domestic incident, the tournament’s clear favourite was no longer a part of the equation.
“I want to play more than anything,” Johnson added. “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 back to 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 mean I can’t play? It just sucks, it really does.
“If it happened on Monday, I don’t think we would have any issues but it happened on Wednesday afternoon. It would even have been great if it’d happened after this because I have three weeks off.”
Johnson’s subsequent shrug said it all. Someone, somewhere decided this wasn’t to be his Green Jacket year.
This maybe was not Johnson’s scene anyway. Anyone seeking calm after Wednesday’s electric storm was to be sadly disappointed as the wind whipped around Augusta to the extent scoring conditions became more brutal by the hour. Towering pine trees arced under the strain of 40mph gusts, with only sensible pin positions ensuring the course remained playable. Competitors had to hang on for dear life; it soon became clear that an opening round of level par or better represented an outstanding return.
It is, of course, an ill wind that blows no good scoring. Johnson’s departure would also have provided hope to the remaining 93 members of this Masters field.
For spells, youth laughed in the face of danger. Thomas Pieters, a Masters debutant, led the field by three when cantering to five under par after 10 holes. The Belgian was to discover some harsh reality when giving those strokes back over the closing stretch but could still be delighted with his 72. “If you catch the wrong gust at the wrong time, you can look really stupid out there,” Pieters observed.
Matthew Fitzpatrick suffered a similar fate, if later in proceedings. The Englishman reached the leaderboard’s summit at three under par – a terrific effort during mid-afternoon, when the wind was at its worst – but had to settle for a 71 after taking six at the 18th.
Jordan Spieth was in a strong position before just the third quadruple bogey of his professional career and, astonishingly, the second in successive Masters rounds. Spieth’s nine at the 15th contributed heavily to a 75. Typically, he made a tap-in birdie on 16.
Phil Mickelson, who is looking to match the record set by Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner when aged 46, opened with a promising 71. Andy Sullivan matched that score, as did Justin Rose. Sullivan virtually bounced towards the clubhouse. “I’m buzzing,” he said.
If not to the same extent, Adam Scott cut an upbeat figure despite taking bogey at the closing two holes to post a 75. “It was very, very difficult,” said the 2013 champion. “The gusts are very hard. You can’t predict them and they can be very damaging for any shot.
“It could have been worse for me today. I would have liked to have putt better from six to ten feet, but it’s very difficult when the wind is blowing really hard and you don’t have complete control over the golf ball.”
Perhaps the performance of day one belonged to Larry Mize on what marks the 30th anniversary of his Masters success. The 58-year-old signed for a 74 which proved better than Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Martin Kaymer and a host of others. Therein lies one of major championship golf’s enduring appeals; where else in sport could someone touching 60 outperform those of current era? Sadly for Johnson, he did not have the chance to strike a blow on behalf of his peers.