It isn’t every day, particularly at the biggest event in golf, that what transpires off the sport’s most-famous course is more scrutinized by the cameras than what happens between the ropes.
On Thursday, with nearly all of the 93 players all but bleeding out on an unusually punitive Augusta National, eyes instead were directed at world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. He never hit a shot in competition but nonetheless was the subject of more analysis and consternation than any player since Tiger Woods in his prime at the Masters.
Rightly so, too.
Johnson said he slipped on a staircase Wednesday afternoon in his rented home, landing awkwardly on his left side and tweaking his lower back and left elbow. As the betting favorite, he gingerly walked onto the Augusta practice area after lunch, but few could have envisioned what happened next.
Indeed, a stationary camera placed on the back of the Augusta practice range became the source of must-see TV. With the wind howling and players on the course struggling to generate much applause, Johnson’s fate became the most riveting storyline of the day.
Johnson appeared on the range about an hour before his 2:03 p.m. tee time in the final group of the day, reached into his bag and carefully swung a pitching wedge at half-speed as the guessing game commenced. Johnson, who won his past three PGA Tour events and finished in the top six at the Masters in 2015 and ’16, was the favorite entering the week, plus the tournament focal point for many.
However, that was before he toppled down the stairs in his rented house when he slipped while wearing socks and had to be helped up by his brother/caddie Austin, characterizing it as a “freak accident.”
Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte reported that when Johnson’s trainer, Joey Diovisalvi, arrived at the player’s house after the incident, Johnson said, "Bro, I can't believe I did this."
That sentiment was universal. As Johnson hit some mid-tempo shots, the proclamations and predictions rolled in as the world tried to read the notoriously decaffeinated Johnson’s body language. The pithiest analysis was delivered by the crew at Golf Channel, which doesn’t have any live-broadcast rights but has been airing a live feed from the practice range all week. That camera was worth its weight in platinum.
The analysts rightly declared that Augusta National, especially on a cold, windy day, was no place for somebody with a back injury to be bunting the ball around and hoping for the best.
"It's not Florida here; it's not flat,” World Golf Hall of Famer Colin Montgomerie said on Golf Channel. “This is probably the hilliest course they play on the PGA Tour. It's not just hilly. It's the lies. It's the angles. Yeah, there's a lot more going here apart from just hitting a golf shot."
After hitting perhaps 15 shots with a wedge, Johnson ducked into a trainer’s area to receive more treatment. Said Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis: “There were issues with range of motion, tightness and pain.”
A few minutes later, Johnson reappeared and hit a few more shots, none at full force, including a few pokes with his driver. His brother put the balls on the tee, an action that should have been a cautionary hint of what the day would portend. Ten minutes before his tee time, Johnson told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that he was going to give playing a shot.
Said Golf Channel’s Mark Rolfing of Johnson: “He is not a drama queen.”
Johnson hopped into a cart and was whisked toward the first tee as reality began to set in. He took a few swipes with his putter on the practice green, then told his manager, David Winkle, “I’m done,” ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski reported.
Johnson left playing competitors Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker standing on the tee, then spoke briefly with a pack of writers before Rinaldi scored the coup of the day: a comprehensive before-and-after recap of what occurred, and what’s likely to happen next.
“I had my socks on, was just hanging, and went to go walk down the stairs and slipped,” Johnson said. “Landed on my elbow and left lower back. Elbow is bruised and swollen, which is fine; that doesn’t bother me.
“But the lower back, I treated it as soon as it happened, as soon as I got my brother down there to help me get up. I got ice on it, laid down (and saw doctors). We treated it all last night, this morning.
“I could swing maybe 70 percent, was about max, and it still hurt. The backswing was fine. I could swing, take it back. It was impact and through impact, where it would catch. I just felt like I was not going to be able to compete.”
Johnson said practicality overtook adrenaline as he walked onto the first tee.
“My heart is in it and wants to play,” he told ESPN. “This is one of my favorite tournaments of the year. I feel I’m playing the best golf of my career right now, and for me to pull out, it sucks really bad.
“The worst part is that I felt like in two days, I’m going to be fine. Right this second, I can’t swing.”