Defending Masters champion Johnson five back after poor finish

AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - A wild finish left Dustin Johnson five shots behind the leaders on Thursday as the defending Masters champion faced much fiercer conditions at Augusta National compared to the toothless 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 reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Japan's Hideki Matsuyama, bolstered by an eagle at the par-five eighth, and Brian Harman fired three-under-par 69s to share the first-round clubhouse lead.

Former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, Masters debutant Will Zalatoris and South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout were all one shot back.

"It's playing definitely a lot tougher just because when the greens are firm and fast here the golf course plays difficult," Johnson said. "And you add the wind in today it played really difficult I thought."

World number one Johnson (74) was one under when he reached the par-three 16th but made bogey after his tee shot rolled off the green. He carded a double-bogey at 18 after his tee shot sailed well right of the fairway.

Johnson, whose 20-under-par 268 total last year was the lowest in the tournament's history, is trying to put himself in elite company as Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are the only three players to win back to back Masters titles.

World number three Jon Rahm (72), who is competing five days after his wife gave birth to their first child, mixed two birdies with two bogeys.

ROUGH START

Rory McIlroy (76) made an inauspicious start to his latest bid to complete the career Grand Slam as he carded his worst opening round at the Masters and even hit his father's leg with an errant approach shot that led to one his six bogeys.

Bryson DeChambeau, whose bid to overpower Augusta National last November when he was the pre-tournament favourite failed, was three over through seven holes after a rough stretch that included a double-bogey at the par-three fourth where he found a bush with his tee shot and barely chopped it out.

Justin Thomas, who has improved in each of his five Masters starts and finished fourth in November, was also three over after seven holes while former champion Jordan Spieth, fresh off his win last week at the Texas Open, was even after six holes.

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 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."

Elder has limited mobility and did not hit a tee shot.

(Reporting by Andrew Both; Writing by Frank Pingue; Editing by Toby Davis and Ed Osmond)

04/08/2021 20:26

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