Dustin Johnson hits a chip on the 17th hole during practice for the Masters on Tuesday. Photo: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

AUGUSTA, United States - Dustin Johnson can even joke about it now -- sort of. The American was riding high heading into the Masters last year.

Having finally broken through for a first major title at the 2016 US Open, Johnson had gone from strength to strength, winning three straight tournaments and seizing the world number one ranking before arriving at Augusta National.

"I was about as confident as I've ever been," Johnson says.

But he never made it to the first tee last year, after a mis-step on the stairs at his rented house in Augusta left him with a badly bruised back on the eve of the tournament.

This year, Johnson quipped in his deadpan style, his plan for Wednesday was to "take it really easy".

But he admitted that having to sit out the first major of 2017 added an extra edge to his anticipation this week.

"Obviously I was playing very well, and it was very disappointing not to be able to play," Johnson said. "This year's a completely different year, and I'm really looking forward to coming into this year -- especially missing last year."

Johnson, 33, is still perched atop the world rankings -- although Justin Thomas leads a trio of players who could supplant him this week.

He opened 2018 with a victory in the US PGA Tournament of Champions and finished tied for second at Pebble Beach, but he hasn't been the juggernaut of 2017.

Nevertheless, Johnson says his confidence level remains high -- a 9 1/2, perhaps, compared to 10 on a scale of 10 last year.

"Starting to swing it a lot better," Johnson said. "Feeling a lot better on the golf course, for sure."

A native of nearby Columbia, South Carolina, Johnson remembers watching the Masters as a boy. Now, he believes, he has the major championship know-how and enough experience of the Augusta National course to challenge for the green jacket.

"The more you play here, the more comfortable you get around this golf course," said Johnson, who notched top-10 finishes in 2015 and 2016. "You know what tee shots and where to hit it and the flags and kind of how to attack the golf course.

"Then, I think just me as a golfer getting better throughout the whole game, just having more confidence, hitting it better, driving it better, doing everything a little bit better always helps around here."

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