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Masters behind him, Johnson ready to keep going in new year

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Dustin Johnson chips onto the ninth green during a practice round prior to the Tournament of Champions golf event, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Matt York)

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Dustin Johnson will have gone 53 days from tapping in for par to win the Masters by five shots to blasting his tee shot down the hill at Kapalua toward the Pacific horizon.

A little rust is inevitable, even with being on Maui for more than a week.

Motivation doesn't appear to be an issue.

“Motivation for me, it's not that hard,” Johnson said Wednesday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he has won twice. “I like being the best. I want to continue the good play and hopefully can have a little bit better year.”

That would be hard to top.

Even a year shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic — Johnson missed two tournaments when he tested positive — he was so good over the last five months that he ended the year with the biggest margin at No. 1 in the world in six years.

There's also that green jacket from the Masters that Johnson has worn a few times at home in Florida, once for a corporate outing and another time as a guest on ESPN's College Game Day (he picked Coastal Carolina, his alma mater).

That was his crowning achievement, a victory so meaningful to him that he couldn't talk while wiping away tears. Johnson has the video of his record victory at Augusta National and still hasn't watched it. Details remain clear, especially as he goes shot-by-shot through the final round.

No telling how he will react when he sees the emotion in his post-victory interview on the putting green at Augusta.

“Everyone that I've talked to or seen, obviously they really liked it and they said it was nice to see that I did show some emotion, just because I try out on the golf course not to try to get too excited or too upset,” he said.

To look back beyond the Masters is equally impressive.

Johnson was runner-up at the PGA Championship, losing a one-shot lead at Harding Park to a closing 64 by Collin Morikawa. He won The Northern Trust by 10 shots. He lost in a playoff at the BMW Championship to a 65-foot birdie putt by Jon Rahm. And he did enough at the Tour Championship to claim the FedEx Cup for the first time.

He has won or been runner-up in six of his last seven events.

Small wonder that swing coach Butch Harmon says, “When he's playing his best, he's the closest thing to Tiger (Woods) when he's on. The difference is Tiger was on for 20 years.”

Adam Scott also made such a reference, noting that it's an unfair comparison because Woods did it for so long. Jason Day once had seven victories in a span of 17 starts. Rory McIlroy had three wins — two of them in majors — and three runner-up finishes in nine starts.

“It's not that easy to do,” Scott said. “I only can list a couple, and of course then I can think of Tiger doing it for about 12 years. But he played at that kind of Tiger standard for the last five months.”

What gets Johnson excited — not that he would ever show it — is being on the Plantation Course at Kapalua to start a new year. He has missed it only one time, in 2015 after his only winless year since he joined the PGA Tour in 2008.

Johnson spent much of last week down the coast in Makena to chill out and do a little work. Since then, the routine doesn't change. He can be found at a picnic table on the porch of the Honolua Store before dawn eating breakfast with his brother and caddie, Austin, and his manager.

He tees off as the sun is climbing and is done playing while breakfast is still being served.

“Everything feels pretty similar,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I'm not quite as sharp as I was probably back at Augusta, but I’m seeing a lot of the same shapes and I feel like I’m doing everything pretty well, even though I haven’t practiced a whole lot here lately. But this is a good week. It's OK to be a little bit rusty.”

This is the largest field he has seen at this tournament with 42 players. Because of the shortened season, anyone who made it to the Tour Championship joined the 26 winners at Kapalua.

There's something about a new year, especially on Maui, that brings a combination of hope and optimism. That doesn't necessarily apply to Johnson.

“I don't have a lot of optimism,” he said. “I'm not hoping to play well. I expect to play well.”