AUGUSTA — It’s only been five months between Masters; Dustin Johnson remains 36.
What a difference.
Johnson walked, talked and practiced April 6 with a new Augusta National Golf Club glow. The same cowboy’s gait ambling a 6-4, 190-pound frame along the fairway, but a few more smiles. Way more at ease.
That almost/maybe guy?
The Columbia native and former Coastal Carolina golfer is the defending champion, unusually fresh off a Masters-record 20-under-par finish. Johnson in a 2020 version of a tradition truly unlike any other beat Cameron Smith and Sungjae Im by five shots in a showcase COVID-19 pushed to November.
Former perception: Johnson, 2016 U.S. Open winner or not, was likely to find a way to stumble at Augusta.
Adjusted reality: Don’t bet against D.J., a Las Vegas favorite this week, along with slammin’ Bryson DeChambeau and suddenly hot Jordan Spieth. But only one of those guys is ranked No. 1 and has a chance to become the first player since Tiger Woods (2001-2002) to win back-to-back Masters.
The hardest part of the shortest green jacket tenure?
Not many opportunities to wear the green jacket publicly, Johnson said, what with COVID restrictions and all.
But he’s stopping to smell the azaleas.
“I've won the Masters,” Johnson said, “so there’s no pressure on trying to win the golf tournament. But still, I want to go out and, I’m defending champ, so I want to go out and put myself in a position where I’ve got a chance to defend my title come the back nine on Sunday.”
Tribute to Art Whisnant
The D.J Show is the PGA Tour’s most lively family affair.
Austin Johnson, Dustin’s younger brother, is a College of Charleston graduate and former Charleston Southern basketball player who has been the Team Johnson caddie since late 2013.
They live near each other in Jupiter, Fla., and spend much of their non-tour time hanging out together.
Not all has been cheery since November; Art Whisnant, the Johnson brothers’ grandfather and a former star basketball player at South Carolina, died at 81 on March 17.
Whisnant’s grandsons estimate they hit thousands of golf balls into Lake Murray aside Whisnant’s house.
“He was always a big part of both of our lives just with sports,” Johnson said of Whisnant, who was named to the All-ACC team three times from 1959-1962. “He was a huge sports fan. Didn't matter what sport it was, he thought he knew how to play it. And he was good at it, that’s for sure, even with golf. Even though I don’t think he ever even hit a golf ball, he would still try to tell me how to play. That's just how he was.”
Grandpa Art, Johnson said, is “in a good place.”
Surely, Whisnant is getting a kick out of Johnson’s Champions Dinner menu. It’s a Masters tradition that the defending champ “hosts” the other former champions and requests a signature Augusta National-prepared meal.
Chez D.J. is befitting of the only Masters champion born in South Carolina (Country Club of Charleston pro Henry Picard, the 1938 winner, was a Massachusetts native):
• Appetizers: Pigs in a blanket, lobster and corn fritters
• First course: House salad or Caesar salad
• Family-style sides: Mashed potatoes and spring vegetables
• Main course: Filet mignon and miso-marinated sea bass
• Dessert: Peach cobbler and apple pie with vanilla ice cream
Johnson knows food, folks. Asked in November to name his favorite thing about the Masters, he said, "The sandwiches."
Pimento cheese, egg salad, Masters club.
Johnson’s golf game, he insists, is in good shape, too.
“Maybe not quite as good of shape as it was in November but I feel like it’s coming together,” said Johnson, who has played five events since the Masters with one top 10 finish (tied for eighth at the Genesis Invitational). “I’m starting to hit a lot of the same shots and getting a lot more comfortable over the golf ball.”
Green jackets vs. birthdays
Johnson won the Masters before very few patrons — Augusta’s autumn “crowds” included one guest per player, club members and a few of their friends, volunteers, course employees and a smattering of media. This time, there is “limited attendance,” which, judging by the patron scene during Tuesday’s practice round and manageable traffic on Washington Road, will be well off normal but more fun than November.
While Johnson is more of a private person than most PGA Tour players, he was warming up Tuesday to the reception from veteran Augusta National patrons getting their first chance to congratulate the 2020 champion.
Johnson is scheduled to tee off Thursday morning at 10:30 in a grouping with Lee Westwood and Tyler Strafaci, the U.S. Amateur champion who plays at Georgia Tech.
Five months ago, D.J., full of Augusta disappointment, hadn’t won a Masters.
Between birthdays, he has arranged for pigs in a blanket and sea bass and just might win a second green jacket.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff