By Andrew Both
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) -Dustin Johnson got his Masters title defense off to a shaky start with an opening bogey on Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club where course conditions were proving much fiercer compared the defenceless layout he triumphed on five months ago.
This Masters has a much more familiar look as it is back in its traditional April slot as the year’s first major while fans were welcomed back, albeit in limited numbers and with protocols in place to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
World number one Johnson, who went off in the 13th group off the first tee, sent his first tee shot just left of the fairway, watched his approach roll off the back of the green and then chipped to about 23 feet where he needed two putts.
A win this week for Johnson would put him in elite company as Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are the only three players to successfully defend Masters victories.
There is a slight chance of rain at Augusta National during the first round with the risk of inclement weather increasing on Friday and Saturday.
Playing one group behind Johnson is world number three Jon Rahm, who is competing five days after his wife gave birth to their first child.
The Spaniard, who has finished in the top 10 in each of the last three years at the Masters, arrived at Augusta National on Wednesday and admitted to being a little sleep deprived.
Rahm was grouped with world number six Xander Schauffele and Rory McIlroy, who is making his seventh attempt to complete the career Grand Slam of golf’s four majors.
Bryson DeChambeau, whose bid to overpower Augusta National last November when he was the pre-tournament favourite turned into a dud, had yet to start his round.
Justin Thomas, who has improved in each of his five Masters starts and finished fourth last November, was due to go out in the day’s penultimate group at 1:48 p.m. ET (1748 GMT).
Former champion Jordan Spieth, a tournament favourite fresh off his win last week at the Texas Open, was scheduled to tee off at 2:00 p.m. ET in the day’s final grouping.
Festivities began hours earlier when a clearly moved Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first Black man to compete in the Masters, was warmly welcomed as he joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as a new honorary starter for the 2021 tournament.
A brilliant sun had barely risen over the clubhouse when 86-year-old Elder was driven to the first tee in a golf cart as a new major season dawned.
“I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder said.
“It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National and playing here.
“My heart is very soft this morning, not heavy, soft, soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered since arriving here on Monday.”
Elder has limited mobility and did not hit a tee shot.
(Reporting by Andrew Both; Writing by Frank Pingue; Editing by Toby Davis and Pritha Sarkar)