No. 1 DJ and McIlroy thrill returning Masters spectators

No. 1 DJ and McIlroy thrill returning Masters spectators

Top-ranked defending champion Dustin Johnson and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy delighted the first spectators at Augusta National since 2019 with a morning practice round together on Monday ahead of the 85th Masters tournament.

Dustin Johnson Masters 2020
Photp: Twitter/DustinJohnson

Spectators were banned last year and the event was delayed until November by the Covid-19 pandemic and only a limited number of spectators are allowed onto the famed course this week under Covid-19 safety protocols such as face masks and social distancing.

Those who arrived early were treated to a tour of the front nine by McIlroy, trying to win a green jacket to complete a career Grand Slam, and Johnson, bidding to become the first back-to-back Masters champion since Tiger Woods in 2001-02.

McIlroy, ranked 12th, continued onto the back nine while Johnson headed for the clubhouse as spectators spread across the course.

Masters officials have not said how many fans are expected to be on the course during the tournament, but US media reports have estimated that around 12,000 spectators per day will be allowed during the tournament, compared to the usual daily figure of 40,000 to 50,000. 

"The Masters will feel like it's back," Johnson said of having spectators return to Augusta National. "I'm definitely looking forward to that."

McIlroy said last month at Bay Hill that he has dearly missed playing in front of even a reduced set of fans.

"I've missed this a lot," he said. "Even though it's only, whatever, 25% capacity, it feels so much more than that and it's great to play in front of that.

"I think we're all sort of now seeing a light at the end of the tunnel where things can at least get back to some sort of normality pretty soon."

Four-time major winner Brooks Koepka played four practice holes and had a driving range session Sunday, saying he's planning to play despite coming off March 16 right knee surgery for a dislocation and ligament damage after slipping in Florida.

"I feel I can win," Koepka said. "I'll play. I'll be all right. If I knew I was going to finish second, I wouldn't have shown up."

Koepka responded to a report that he could miss six to eight months after the surgery by tweeting a meme showing a photo of former NBA star Michael Jordan with the caption "and I took that personally."

The confident tone was a sharp contrast to photos Koepka tweeted two weeks ago of himself on crutches with his right leg bandaged.

After battles with left knee and hip injuries in recent years, it appeared Koepka would miss a major tournament for the third time in four seasons.

"We've been pretty impressed," Koepka said. "The goal was to play Augusta. Here we are."

Koepka, who proposed to girlfriend Jena Sims last month, finished second at the WGC Concession event in Florida in February before the surgery, which prompted him to skip the Players Championship and WGC Match Play events.

The 30-year-old American says he did more than seven hours of rehabilitation work every day on his knee and neck and was hitting golf balls a week after the operation.

Koepka won his first major title at the 2017 US Open, captured the 2018 US Open and PGA Championship and defended his PGA crown in 2019, the same year he was second at the Masters and US Open and shared fourth at the British Open.

- 'More like Augusta' -

Among those who also toured the famed course over Easter weekend were Justin Thomas and the duo of Bryson DeChambeau and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson.

Perfect conditions have allowed Augusta National to prepare lightning-fast greens, a major difference from last autumn, when a rain-softened layout surrendered a record-low 20-under par winners total to top-ranked Johnson.

"This looks more like Augusta," declared American Billy Horschel, who won the WGC Match Play two weeks ago.

Australia's Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, likes the unique major back-to-back nature of these Masters caused by the pandemic.

"It's exciting having them so close together," Scott said. "I think it's helpful, because playing at Augusta National still feels very fresh in my mind."

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