Dustin Johnson is favorite heading into Masters

SHARE Dustin Johnson is favorite heading into Masters
SHARE Dustin Johnson is favorite heading into Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Turn the calendar to the first full week in April, and Dustin Johnson’s three consecutive victories suddenly seem like dress rehearsals.

Now it’s time for the biggest star in golf to perform at Augusta National, the greatest theater in the sport. But it’s not always that simple at the Masters.

Tiger Woods — who withdrew from the tournament Friday because of continuing back issues— looked unbeatable in 2000, when he won or was runner-up in 10 out of 11 PGA Tour events going into the Masters. He took a double bogey and a triple bogey in a span of three holes in the opening round and never caught up.

A year ago, Jason Day won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Match Play in back-to-back weeks to reach No. 1 in the world. He never shot better than 71 at the Masters and tied for 10th.

It has been 15 years since the No. 1 player in the world — Woods in 2002 — won the green jacket.

For years known as having the rawest talent and the most athleticism, Johnson now is looked upon as a machine, with scant evidence that he has a pulse.

‘‘A perfect, complete player,’’ Jon Rahm said after losing to Johnson in the finals of Match Play.

‘‘There’s just not a flaw,’’ two-time major champion Zach Johnson said.

Jordan Spieth knows Johnson’s game as well as anyone. They were partners at the Presidents Cup two years ago and regularly play together at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He has learned not to look because it can get depressing watching Johnson hit shots that few can. That said, Spieth is savvy enough to realize golf is still about the score on a card, and he won Pebble Beach by four shots.

As for the Masters?

‘‘I think Dustin Johnson is the guy to beat in golf no matter where you are,’’ Spieth said. ‘‘Put him anywhere. I think just about anybody would agree with that. If I play my best golf, I believe that I can take down anybody — and you have to believe that. But I think that right now . . . he’s playing the best golf in the world.’’

Johnson reached No. 1 in the world with a five-shot victory at Riviera, where he probably would have shattered the oldest 72-hole scoring record on the PGA Tour if he had known or cared what it was. He won a World Golf Championship in Mexico City (stroke play) and another one on the edge of Hill Country in Texas (match play).

It has been just more than 40 years since a player came to the Masters having won three tournaments in a row. And to think that just a year ago, the talk was about a modern version of the ‘‘Big Three’’ with Day, Rory McIlroy and Spieth.

Johnson wasn’t even part of that conversation. When the 81st Masters begins Thursday, he will not have experienced anything but trophy presentations for nearly two months.

Johnson has talked about the improvement he has made in his wedges, but the biggest difference was going to a controlled fade off the tee instead of a draw that sometimes could get away from him.

‘‘We were trying to get him to hit it for five or six years,’’ swing coach Butch Harmon said. ‘‘He just had to buy into it. He controls it so much better, and it hasn’t cost him any distance. It’s way too early to compare Dustin to Tiger, but it reminds me of Tiger in 2000.’’

For all his power, Johnson never could figure out Augusta National until two years ago, when he tied for sixth. He was nine shots behind Spieth, but it was his first top 10 at the Masters. Last year, his hopes in the final round were ruined by a pair of double bogeys. He tied for fourth, four shots behind.

‘‘The more you play it, the more you understand it and know where to hit,’’ Johnson said.

Don’t get the idea the rest of the field is about to roll over for Johnson. Jack Nicklaus marvels at the depth at the top of golf, which is greater than he has seen. Right behind Johnson in the world ranking is McIlroy, who has his own score to settle with Augusta National.

McIlroy had a four-shot lead going into the final round in 2011 and shot 80. Now the Masters is all that’s keeping him from becoming the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. This is his third try, and he never has had a better chance than that first one.

Spieth has his own bad memories, even though he still has a green jacket. He had a five-shot lead last year going to the back nine in his bid to become the first player to go wire-to-wire in consecutive years. Instead, he dropped six shots in three holes, including his infamous quadruple bogey with two balls in Rae’s Creek at No. 12, and finished three shots behind Danny Willett.

Spieth has played the Masters three times and has one victory and two runner-up finishes.

The mystery is Day, who started the year at No. 1 and has had two close calls at the Masters. He pulled out of the Match Play because his mother is battling lung cancer, and he says he’s having a hard time keeping her off his mind.

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