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Johnson No. 1 and headed upward

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Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The knock on Dustin Johnson was that he didn't have what it takes between the ears to close out a major.

He looked as though he didn't care, perhaps because a crushing loss didn't appear to bother him as much as it should have. And in some corners, there was chatter that he needed to get someone other than his brother to be his caddie.

Now those are some of the reasons why Johnson is No. 1 in the world, and why he is such a strong favorite to win the Masters.

"He knows he can handle whatever gets in his way," said Claude Harmon III, the swing coach who spends the most time at work with Johnson. "Now players feel like if he's on the leaderboard, they can't afford to make a mistake."

Conversations paused under the oak tree next to Augusta National's clubhouse Tuesday morning when Johnson sauntered toward the tee for another practice round. The way he has played the last two months -- going back to his U.S. Open title in June, really -- he has everyone's attention.

Johnson is not one for conversation.

Mention that he is the first player in more than 40 years to arrive at the Masters having won his last three tournaments, and Johnson will shrug and say that his game is solid, he's working hard and that he's playing pretty well.

As for the additional pressure he faces being such a favorite?

"I don't know," Johnson said. "It's the first time I've ever been the favorite."

For all his power and athleticism, Johnson had never been in contention at Augusta until last year. He was two shots out of the lead until a double bogey from the bunker on the 17th hole ended his hopes.

He still tied for fourth, his best finish ever, and it was enough for him to at least see that a green jacket was within reach.

More in his favor, however, is that Johnson can hit shots no one else does.

Typical of his career, the rise began with a fall. Johnson recalls having a chance to win the Cadillac Championship at Doral in March 2016 until hooking a tee shot in the water on No. 10 and making double bogey, and hitting a few more errant tee shots along the back nine.

That's when he finally bought into what the Harmons -- Butch Harmon and his son, Claude -- had been suggesting. It was time to learn to hit a fade instead of a draw. It didn't take long for him to figure that out. And it didn't take long for players to notice.

"I heard he had switched to a fade, and then I saw it," two-time major champ Zach Johnson said. "I said, 'He's going to win a lot of golf tournaments.' There was control. There was spin. There was trajectory control. And then he won the U.S. Open."

And he really hasn't slowed since. The better Johnson gets, the harder he works.

Tiger Woods in '02 was the last No. 1 to win the Masters.