By Andrew Both
(Reuters) - Dustin Johnson returns to this week's U.S. Masters a different person than a year ago, more confident and comfortable, a golfer with greatness in his sights but some Everest-like mountains still to climb.
Johnson, the newly-ascended world number one, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are the three clear favorites for the year’s first major championship, though at least two dozen others have a realistic chance of winning if the stars all align at the right time.
But the road to the Green Jacket will lead through Johnson, who ticks all the boxes as the man to beat. Before he is measured for a Green Jacket, however, it would be wise to remember he would not be the first favorite to be spat out by the unforgiving Augusta National layout.
The American, with victories in his past three starts, has a game tailor made for Augusta, prodigiously long off the tee, confident with his irons and short game and a soft putting stroke that seems to be getting better with age.
He also has a good recent Masters record – tied fourth last year and tied sixth in 2015 – and returns approaching a golfer’s usual peak at the age of 32.
“I don't think I've ever gone into a major being ranked number one,” he said recently, before adding to laughter: “Actually, I know I haven't.
"It’s not going to be any different for me. I'm still going to prepare like I always do and go out and try to play the best I can. I played good there the last two years. I'm excited to go back when the game is in good form. I feel like everything is working pretty well.”
While Johnson arrives with a spring in his step, Spieth is hardly looking forward to being reminded of his 2016 debacle, when he endured arguably the worst collapse in Masters history, giving up a five-shot lead over the final nine holes, due largely to a quadruple bogey at the 12th hole.
He missed the cut in Houston on Friday, but publicly at least sounded an upbeat note.
“I made strides in my putting this week, which is something I can take a lot of confidence into next week,” he said. “Putting well next week obviously is important considering I didn't strike it very well last year and certainly was in position to win.”
While Spieth’s short game and putting are usually second to none, McIlroy has been working to raise those facets of the game to a level close to his ball-striking.
Perhaps only Johnson can drive the ball as long and accurately as McIlroy, whose chances often hinge on the quality of his wedge game and putter.
“I feel like that part of my game is as sharp as it has ever been going into Augusta, so that's a good thing,” said McIlroy, who with a victory would become just the sixth man to win all four modern major championships.
Others to watch include American veteran Phil Mickelson as he goes for a fourth Green Jacket at the age of 46, Hideki Matsuyama trying to fulfill the hopes of a nation and become the first Japanese player to win a men’s major, and Jon Rahm, young, strong and fearless, whose chances maybe be hindered only by his lack of course knowledge in his Masters debut.
Fellow Spaniard Sergio Garcia has the quality to end his majors drought if he can turn back the clock and putt as well as before several near-misses started to weigh him down.
For those searching for a realistic dark horse, keep an eye on Australian Marc Leishman, winner of the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Another outstanding ball-striker, Leishman tied for fourth in 2013, when he played the final round with eventual winner Adam Scott.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Gene Cherry)