Couples, Johnson light up Augusta National

Fred Couples and Dustin Johnson of the U.S. during the first round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Dustin Johnson is starting to learn how to play Augusta National Golf Club, a course that only reveals its secrets slowly and subtly. Fred Couples figured this place out long ago.

The two laid-back long hitters are in contention at the Masters after playing together Thursday. Johnson shot 67 to sit one behind co-leaders Sergio Garcia and Marc Leishman. Couples was one shot worse. Johnson and Couples are scheduled to tee off together at 9:50 a.m. Friday.

Johnson is making his fourth Masters appearance. This place seems well-suited for his long, drawing tee shots, but he’s never finished better than 30th here. He’s playing this event for the first time in two years after missing last year’s event with an injury. Thursday’s 67 was his career-best at Augusta National, and only his second round in the 60s in 13 trips around this course. The Masters is the only major where Johnson has not finished in the top 10.

“I love the shape of all the holes, and for my game, I think it suits (me) very well,” Johnson said. “It’s just a tough golf course to figure out where to hit it. ... You learn something new every day.”

This is Couples' 29th Masters. He’s 53 years old, but hasn’t stopped contending at the course where he won his only major championship. Couples hasn’t finished worse than 15th in his past three appearances here. He was the 36-hole leader last year, and held the 18-hole lead in 2010. With Couples scheduled to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame next month in spite of just one victory in a major, this week could be an effective 11th-hour effort to bolster his candidacy.

In spite of his good history here, Couples said he was “concerned” about the state of his game during the practice rounds. Most players head home after the Par-3 Contest to rest for Thursday’s first round. Couples headed to the practice tee for a 40-minute session instead. “I seemed to find a little bit and I took it on the course today,” he said.

It was past 6 p.m. when Couples and Johnson finished their rounds Thursday. The winds that blew through Augusta National’s pine trees foretold of thunderstorms, but the rain held off long enough to have no impact on Thursday’s play. Johnson and Couples will be in the mix when Friday’s second round begins at an Augusta National that will likely play long and soft because of a forecast that predicts overnight rain.

Johnson had four birdies Thursday, including chip-ins at Nos. 1 and 9, an eagle at the par-5 13th that was set up by a 9-iron second shot and a bogey at the 17th. Couples’ 71.89 scoring average at Augusta National is the best among players with 100 or more rounds. He had six birdies Thursday, as well as bogeys at Nos. 6 and 18.

Couples was asked after his round how long he could envision playing this tournament. His 1992 victory here gives him a lifetime exemption. “I’m going to play this tournament until I really don’t think I can win,” he said. “So how long? I would say another 25 years of this?”

His tone insinuated that he was joking, but after Thursday’s performance, it’s hard to envision a day when he won’t be in contention at Augusta National.

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