AP Sports Writer
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – Strong winds and a fall down a staircase by the Masters pre-tournament favorite could change the complexion of the season’s first major.
Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer, injured his lower back late Wednesday afternoon in what his agent described as a “serious” fall down the staircase at a home he’d rented for the week. Johnson goes off in the last group for Thursday’s opening round, but even the late 2:03 p.m. starting time may not give him enough time to recover.
“He landed very hard on his lower back and is now resting, although quite uncomfortably,” David Winkle, Johnson’s agent said in an email. “He has been advised to remain immobile and begin a regimen of anti-inflammatory medication and icing, with the hope of being able to play tomorrow.”
Johnson has won his last three starts. His questionable status further scrambled what was already predicted to be a wild first round.
The weather forecast for the region , socked by powerful storms two of the last three days, calls for cool, overcast skies and steady winds of 20-30 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph. Augusta National can bedevil the world’s best in tame conditions. But strong winds make hitting fairways and approach shots even tougher, and if the greens dry out, putting can turn treacherous.
Johnson was at the club earlier in the day to practice before the wave of storms forced Masters officials to close the course. Coincidentally, he predicted earlier in the week that tough conditions could make the leaderboard resemble a game of musical chairs.
“The short game is going to be very important around here because if it’s blowing 27 miles an hour, like it’s forecasted for, it’s going to be tough to hit the greens,” Johnson said. “You’re going to really have to be careful where you hit it and just try to make pars.”
Some other things to watch for at the Masters:
SLAMMING RORY: Only five players have won the career Grand Slam. For the third year in a row, Rory McIlroy has a chance to join the exclusive club. The Masters has been the only major missing from his resume since his victory at the 2014 British Open. Strangely enough, it looked like Augusta was going to provide his first major title six years ago. McIlroy went to the final round with a four-stroke lead, only to post a horrific 80 that included a shot behind a cabin along the 10th fairway.
A NEW DAY: Augusta National at times can favor emotion. Who can forget Ben Crenshaw winning just days after he was a pallbearer at swing coach Harvey Penick’s funeral? That might bode well for Australian Jason Day, who wasn’t entirely sure he was going to play a few weeks ago when his mother came to America to have surgery for lung cancer. The operation went well and her prognosis suddenly got a whole lot better. “I owe everything to her,” Day said.
SPIETH’S COMEBACK: No one was more eager than Jordan Spieth for another shot at the Masters . The young Texan had a five-shot lead going to the back nine on Sunday last year, seemingly a lock for his second straight green jacket. It all fell apart at the par-3 12th, where he dumped two shots in the water and surrendered the lead with a quadruple-bogey 7. “We’ll step out and try and get a chance to win on Sunday on the back nine again,” Spieth said. “That’s all we’re asking for. That’s it. Just that small little piece.”
DEFENDING CHAMP: Danny Willett hasn’t been much of a factor since winning the green jacket a year ago with a bogey-free 67 in the final round. His best finish of 2017 is a tie for fifth at the Maybank Classic, an Asian-European Tour event with a weaker field than any tournament played on this side of the Atlantic this year. He’s slipped to No. 17 in the world rankings. “You’ve got to either climb down or stay up there,” he said, “and it’s incredibly difficult to stay up there all the time.”
TIGER WATCH: No need to look for Tiger Woods. The four-time Masters champion is sitting out the tournament for the second year in a row – and third time in the last four years – as he deals with another injury. Woods missed a chance to play on the 20th anniversary of his first major title, a 12-shot runaway at the 1997 Masters that signaled his emergence as the game’s dominant player.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.