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Johnson says putting will decide his Masters fate

Friday, April 01, 2011

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The day trips from Columbia as a kid built a general kinship with the Masters Tournament for Dustin Johnson.

With four PGA Tour wins at age 26, Dustin Johnson, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., is one of the elite young American golfers on the PGA Tour. He was contending in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship last year, but came up short both times. (Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

While that bond remains, the specifics of those visits -- how old he was, who won -- are already lost on the 26-year-old.

"Naw, my memory sucks," Johnson said.

That poor memory has turned out to be one of Johnson's best golfing assets. The young man with the lead who melted down in the final round of last year's U.S. Open, then two months later lost his place in a playoff at the PGA Championship with a rules gaffe on the 72nd hole, is psychologically no worse for the wear.

Despite two significant setbacks that might permanently derail the confidence of many golfers, Johnson is widely considered a potential favorite when he arrives at Augusta National Golf Club.

Even Johnson feels confident on a course he can cut down to size with his prodigious drives and deft touch.

"I think I'm consistently playing better golf now than I was the past couple of years," he said en route to a runner-up finish at the WGC event at Doral in March. "This past, like, you know, eight, 10 months, I really played a lot of good golf. Going into Augusta feeling pretty confident."

With the most PGA Tour wins (four) of anyone under age 30, Johnson has climbed to the cusp of the top 10 in the world rankings and earned a place in the argument for best young American golfer. He already has shown he has what it takes to contend in majors. All he needs to do is close one out.

In two previous starts at Augusta National, he finished tied for 30th and 38th.

"There's nothing not to like about the place, to me," he said of Augusta. "All the holes set up well for me. I like playing the golf course. I grew up there and always loved the Masters. Every time I play it I love it."

Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, who has played a couple of practice rounds with Johnson at Augusta, said he has what it takes to one day earn an upgrade to the Champions Locker Room.

"He has the game that's meant for a lot of courses. I wouldn't isolate just one," Mickelson said. "But I think he has a game to play (the Augusta National) very effectively."

Johnson played the course for the first time with member Rob Chapman after his rookie season on tour in 2008 (he doesn't remember what he shot). A couple of months later he qualified for his first Masters by winning at Pebble Beach.

"It's one of those courses where I'm going to play well there but I just gotta putt good," he said. "That's the key. You don't have to hit it all that great, but you're going to have to putt good.

''There's plenty of room around the greens and plenty of places to hit the driver and still have a shot. I'm just going to have to make putts."

Putting was an issue at the start of this year. After his memorable breakout season last year, Johnson got off to a slower start than he hoped for because the winter in Myrtle Beach prevented him from preparing properly for the season. To address that problem in the future, Johnson bought a second home in Jupiter, Fla., and joined the Bear's Club to give him an off-season roost.

"I didn't practice putting one time in the off-season," he said. "It was cold and we had such bad weather that the (TPC Myrtle Beach) greens weren't good enough. There's nothing you could do about it."

Johnson is doing the right things to keep building toward a major title. With a game so well suited for Augusta, he just might do something in the Masters that even he can't forget.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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