Back injury forces top-ranked Johnson out of Golf Masters

Jim SLATER
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Dustin Johnson of the United States walks with coach Butch Harmon to the practice range during the first round of the 2017 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia

Top-ranked Dustin Johnson withdrew from the 81st Masters with a lower back injury, walking off the first tee Thursday to end a 24-hour drama surrounding the Augusta National favorite.

The reigning US Open champion had been the oddsmakers' darling in the year's first major golf championship after winning his three prior starts but hurt himself in a fall down stairs Wednesday at a rental house.

"It's unbelievably difficult. I feel like I'm playing the best golf of my career now. For me to pull out, it sucks really bad," Johnson said.

"I'm very sad I have to do it but it's just a freak accident. I wanted to try and play but I'm not going to be able to compete."

Johnson had tested his swing and even went to the first tee, but instead of teeing off just walked back to the clubhouse shaking his head, having to admit defeat after a rigorous warm-up session.

"I could swing maybe 70 percent was about max. It still hurt," Johnson said. "I could take it back. It was impact and through impact that it would catch.

"I wouldn't be able to compete. My heart was in it. I wanted to play. The more I thought about it, I wasn't going to have any chance."

Johnson had as much time as possible to recover. He was to have joined two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson and 2016 PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker in the day's final group.

Johnson became only the fourth world number one to miss a major championship, the first since Rory McIlroy withdrew from the 2015 British Open.

The only other top-ranked player to miss the Masters was Tiger Woods, who did not play in 2014 after back surgery.

Australian star Greg Norman, who had his own history of heartache at Augusta National and never won a green jacket, missed the 1988 British Open as number one.

The will he-won't he saga began when Johnson, clad in his socks on a slick wooden floor, tumbled down a short flight on stairs on the way to the basement.

The tale reached its emotional peak when Johnson arrived at the course and practiced his swings as television analysts watched his every move.

After a physical therapy session, Johnson tested his swing for several minutes under the watchful gaze of his caddie, brother Austin Johnson, and swing coach Butch Harmon, then returned for more therapy.

- 'It just sucks' -

One saving grace is that the injury, which includes an elbow bruise, should bar Johnson from future tournaments.

"It feels like by Saturday or Sunday I will be just fine and I'll be able to play golf again," Johnson said. "It's just right this second I can't swing.

"It just sucks."

Johnson had been the man to beat when the week began, coming into the Masters on a hot run by winning in February at Riviera to take the top rankings spot, then adding triumphs at the World Golf Championships Mexico and Match-Play events.

He withdrew from last week's Houston Open, citing fatigue after taking seven matches to win the title and become the first player to win all four WGC events, never trailing after any of the 112 holes he played at the Austin, Texas, event.

Johnson would have been the first player since 1976 to enter the Masters on a three-tournament win streak. The only player to win three in a row and then capture the Masters was Jimmy Demaret in 1940.