Defending Masters champion Johnson four back of early leaders

AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - Dustin Johnson was four shots behind the early first-round Masters leaders on Thursday as the defending 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 where his approach settled 23 feet from the cup, South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout and South Korea's Kim Si-woo shared the early lead at three under.

World number one Johnson opened his title defence with a bogey at the first hole where his approach shot rolled off the back of the green but hit back with a short birdie putt at the par-five second.

Johnson dropped another shot at the par-four fifth hole after his tee shot found a deep fairway bunker before stringing together four consecutive pars to reach the turn at one over.

Victory for Johnson would put him in elite company as Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are the only three players to win back to back Masters titles.

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 and was even par through eight holes.


Rahm was grouped with world number six Xander Schauffele and Rory McIlroy, whose seventh bid to complete the career Grand Slam got off to a rough start after three consecutive bogeys from the fifth.

Bryson DeChambeau, whose bid to overpower Augusta National last November when he was the pre-tournament favourite failed, 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, 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 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 17:40

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