Masters 2011: Small group of Americans vying to take the U.S. flag from Woods, Mickelson

Late Wednesday morning, throngs gathered around the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club, necks craned and elbows sharpened a day before the Masters even begins. Tiger Woods arrived to polite applause, practiced his putting to several potential pin placements, and moved on, his preparation for the tournament all but complete.

As Woods departed, the gallery followed suit. And then, from the fairway emerged a graceful figure who, over the past 18 months, has hit more meaningful shots and been in more pressurized situations than Woods. Dustin Johnson does not own a major championship — yet. Twice in the last year, though, he has played in the final group on Sunday. And if there is going to be a transfer of power in the American game away from Woods and Phil Mickelson — who have won six of the past 10 Masters — then someone like Johnson will have to, at some point, win.

“The more times you’re there, the more times you’re in contention,” Johnson said, “the more you learn about yourself and your game.”

Johnson, then, is the leading character among a small group of Americans who may be on the cusp of knowing enough about themselves and their games that they could break through. Johnson’s group in Thursday’s first round includes Nick Watney, who now knows something about blowing a lead on Sunday at a major — and recovering to excel another day. Thursday afternoon, they will be followed onto the course by Bubba Watson, the lean lefty who Martin Kaymer, the world’s No. 1 player, calls “the most underrated player” in the field, someone who will be a factor here.

“I got just as good a chance as everybody else,” Watson said dismissively Wednesday.

The backdrop here is that Woods, by virtue of the personal crises and ensuing slump that have him without a major championship since 2008, has allowed a door that he had kept shut — braced with a chair and a piano for good measure — to swing open. One of several talented-but-unadorned Americans — Johnson, Watney, Watson, Matt Kuchar and Anthony Kim among them — may be ready to walk through.

“It’s an honor to be mentioned with that esteem,” Watney said.

He has earned it. In six tournaments this year, Watney has finished worse than ninth just once. He impressively beat a field that included every one of the top 50 players in the world at the WGC-Cadillac Championship last month at Doral. In his 12 rounds at Augusta National, he has shot par or better nine times, including a 65 on Sunday a year ago to finish seventh.

More important, though, he has the gruesome experience at the PGA Championship last August behind him. Watney entered Sunday with a three-shot lead. That night, though, he woke up early and couldn’t go back to sleep. From there, his day got worse.

“I was going very, very fast — swinging fast, walking fast, thinking way ahead,” Watney said. The result: an unthinkable 81.

“I think what I learned is that I’m never going to be able to block out those feelings,” Watney said. “I just have to learn how to handle them. I don’t have it, but I’m getting there.”

The win at Doral shows it. Johnson played in that final group with Watney at Whistling Straits, and birdies at 16 and 17 gave him a one-shot lead there. At that point, Johnson already had his own calamity behind him — the three-shot lead he carried into the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and the 82 he shot on Sunday.

“A lot of it is just patience,” Johnson said Wednesday.

He could have used attentiveness as well at Whistling Straits, where officials ruled he grounded his club in a waste bunker along the left of the 18th fairway. The ensuing penalty stroke turned bogey into double and kept him out of a playoff with Watson and Kaymer.

Johnson’s attitude about both situations: Poof, it’s gone.

“He’s good at letting go,” said Englishman Luke Donald, who played a practice round in Florida with Johnson last week. “I think Dustin, he’s not someone to hold on to regrets.”

Watson lost the three-hole playoff to Kaymer at Whistling Straits after a poor drive on the final hole. But he has won twice in the past year, finally harnessing his considerable ability.

“Everybody knows that he hits the ball long,” Kaymer said. “But he is, I think, very, very talented in shaping the ball, any side — right-to-left, left-to-right.”

Recent major breakthroughs for Americans, though, have been few — and they haven’t portended more titles to come. The last two Americans to win majors not named Woods or Mickelson are 2009 U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover and ’09 British Open winner Stewart Cink. Neither has won a tournament of any kind since.

This week, a different group is vying to become the kind of player for whom galleries gather, not disperse.

“If it’s your time,” Watson said, “it’s your time.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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