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Fall at rental house puts world-No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s Masters in jeopardy

Dustin Johnson comes to the Masters as the world’s top-ranked golfer, having gotten his game and his personal life in good order.
Dustin Johnson comes to the Masters as the world’s top-ranked golfer, having gotten his game and his personal life in good order. AP

Dustin Johnson has had several disappointing falls in majors before – but all of those came during the tournament.

This one occurred on the eve of the Masters.

Johnson, the Columbia native and the world’s top-ranked player, hopes to play Thursday after falling on a flight of stairs at his rental home Wednesday and landing on his lower back, his agent said in a statement.

David Winkle, Johnson’s agent, said Johnson has been icing his back and taking anti-inflammatory drugs.

Johnson is scheduled to tee off at 2:03 p.m. Thursday in the final first-round group.

Wednesday’s mishap is just the latest in a series of off-the-field events that have threatened to derail Johnson’s career.

Johnson was arrested for DUI in Myrtle Beach in 2009, and five years later, took a leave of absence from the PGA Tour to deal with personal issues.

But Johnson seemed to figure things out in the past year. He won the U.S. Open after several head-slapping finishes in majors, improved his short game and won all three events he’s entered this year to climb to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings.

It will be interesting to see how Johnson responds to his most recent setback – if he plays at all.

He arrived at Augusta National as the odds-on favorite to win his first Masters – a position the Columbia native and former Coastal Carolina standout is still getting used to.

Asked why it’s been so difficult for the chalk to win here – Tigers Woods was the last No. 1-ranked golfer to claim a green jacket in 2002 – Johnson shrugged and said: “I don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve ever been the favorite.”

It won’t be the last.

Given Johnson’s sizable lead over Rory McIlroy in the world rankings, he figures to hold the top perch for a while.

At 32, Johnson is entering his prime and finally getting the results to match the physical talents that have long drawn praise from his PGA peers.

“I think we all knew the talent was there. I think the last couple of years you’ve seen him grow on and off the golf course and see him become the player we all knew he could be,” Brandt Snedeker said. “His work ethic is second to none. He does all the right stuff now. He really takes care of his body, takes care of his mind and comes out here confident 100 percent in what he’s doing. It’s been fun to see him reach his potential.”

Rickie Fowler this week referred to Johnson as a “freak of nature.”

“Dustin is just crazy,” Fowler said. “He’s one of the best drivers of the golf ball, the longest out here and one of the straightest.”

Johnson is slated to play Thursday with fellow bombers Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker. They’ll take aim at a course softened by two days of heavy rains, with the wind expected to whistle through the pine trees.

“With the wind on Thursday and Friday, the golf course is going to play very difficult,” Johnson said. “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.”

Despite winning at least one tournament every year he’s been on tour and claiming his first major last year in the U.S. Open at Oakmont, Johnson was viewed mostly as a strong driver with a smooth swing who would chop it up around the greens.

But Johnson began a strict practice regimen with his wedges during the West Coast swing. And while Johnson leads the Tour in driving distance (316.2 yards) and greens in regulation (75.3 percent), he’s now sixth in shots gained around the greens.

A personal peace

Johnson also seems to have found peace in his personal life.

A renowned partier who had the DUI in 2009 and missed half the 2014 season because of his personal leave, Johnson credits his family for helping him settle down.

He and his fiancee, Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, welcomed their son Tatum in 2015 and have a second child on the way.

“It changes your perspective on things. For me, (Tatum) and Paulina are the most important things in my life,” Johnson said. “And golf, obviously I love to play it and it’s very important. But at the end of the day I still get to go home to them.”

Johnson’s had his share of bad moments on the course, particularly in majors.

He lost the lead at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in 2010, infamously grounding his club in a hazard on the final hole at the PGA at Whistling Straits.

Johnson was within striking distance at the British Open in 2011 before faltering, and his three-putt on the 72nd hole at the 2015 U.S. Open gave the tournament to Jordan Spieth.

But like Greg Norman in the 1980s and ’90s, Johnson somehow keeps bouncing back from his collapses to get into contention at nearly every major.

“Obviously they are tough losses. No one likes to lose,” he said. “But it’s still a game and I still have fun doing it. And I enjoy coming back out here the next day.”

Representing South Carolina

The Masters is the lone major where Johnson has never been a real factor. After a sixth-place finish in 2015, Johnson was in contention last year before ending up in a tie for fourth.

But Johnson has been dominant this year and hopes to continue what’s been a hot stretch for South Carolina teams and athletes. Johnson noted Coastal Carolina’s College World Series championship last summer and the Gamecocks’ women’s basketball crown last week, and begrudgingly acknowledged Clemson’s football championship.

“I’m a Gamecocks’ fan. It’s good it was in-state,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ll ever hear the end of that.”

As for having reached the pinnacle of his own sport, Johnson has kept his humility while ascending to the No. 1 ranking.

Asked Tuesday when he realized he could be golf’s top dog, Johnson deadpanned: “When Tiger stopped playing.”

“Past couple years, I think I’ve been in the top 10 for awhile. I knew it was definitely a possibility, but I was going to have to get better,” Johnson said.

“Over the last year or so, I feel like my game’s gotten a lot better. But I always believed that I could get there.”

Now that he’s gotten there, Johnson has yet another hurdle to overcome.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson