Saudi distraction behind, Dustin Johnson ready to get back on track

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Dustin Johnson’s commentary on his shots was more revealing than where they landed.

He reached the 18th hole Wednesday on the TPC Sawgrass, water all the way down the left side of one of the more daunting closing holes in golf, and opted for a 3-wood with a strong breeze coming off the left. It was perfect for his cut.

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“That’s not cutting,” Johnson said with a laugh, the words not long out of his mouth when he could see the ball splash in the distance.

He asked for the 7-wood, the club he thought about hitting in the first place, and tried a draw. This one started down the right side with a fade, finishing in deep rough near the cart path.

“Yeah, that’s more like it,” Johnson deadpanned. Another smile and he was on his way.

The Players Championship is a mystery to him. He enjoys the Stadium Course and feels it suits his game. Trouble is, he has only one top-10 finish in his 12 appearances, a peculiar record for a player who has spent more time at No. 1 than any other since Tiger Woods.

Whether that changes this week is irrelevant.

Johnson looked more at peace than he has in months, even as he endures the longest stretch of his career without a win. His last victory was the Saudi International 13 months ago. His last PGA Tour title was the Masters in November 2020.

The simple explanation — “Not a very simple answer,” he said — is he hasn’t played well. Digging a little deeper, he mentioned the relentless testing of drivers last year that kept him from working on the whole of his game.

“Just kind of a frustrating year,” he said.

Dustin Johnson hits from the 17th tee during a practice round at The Players Championship golf tournament, Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Dustin Johnson hits from the 17th tee during a practice round at The Players Championship golf tournament, Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

There was more in play, which Johnson conceded only when pressed.

While he never indicated which way he was leaning on the Saudi-funded rival league, the amount of money was such that he had to listen. Johnson would have been the prime catch for the new league Greg Norman is trying to assemble.

Two days after he missed the cut at Riviera, a course Johnson has played better than anyone in the last decade, he released a short statement that his loyalty lies with the PGA Tour. It was a big blow to the Saudi league, and it might have freed Johnson of a major distraction.

“Any time you have something that’s not what you’re doing it’s going to distract you,” Johnson said. “But for me, I don’t think it was too much of a distraction. Maybe it was, I don’t know. I can’t really answer that.”

A “maybe” from Johnson typically is a “yes.”

“I’m happy playing golf right where I’m at,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to have my complete focus on golf and playing on the PGA Tour. That was the main reason for the statement.”

Johnson is approaching an important stretch of the year, starting with Augusta National a month away and including his marriage to longtime partner Paulina Gretzky two weeks after the Masters.

At stake this week is a chance to show his game his turning in the right direction. The Players Championship is the next thing to a major without being one, now offering a $20 million purse and $3.6 million for the winner.

The field is the strongest and deepest in golf, even missing four players from the top 50 in the world, a list that includes Phil Mickelson, who has been on a self-imposed hiatus since his published remarks in which he disparaged the Saudis, the rival league and the PGA Tour.

The rival league has dominated so much of the conversation with nothing more than rumors, from who’s going to play to how much they’re getting offered.

That might finally give way to the Stadium Course, which usually does not lack in entertainment. Like at other tournaments this year, spectators are back at capacity, most of them congregating along the dynamic finishing stretch of the reachable par-5 16th (water on the right), the par-3 17th with its island green (water everywhere) and the 18th (water on the left).

Justin Thomas is the defending champion and will try to become the first player to win this event in consecutive years since it began in 1974. He also has gone a full year without winning.

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The winner gets a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and three-year exemptions to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. The perks go beyond pure cash.

The tournament keeps growing in stature, and even younger players like Collin Morikawa have picked up on that. It felt special to him when he arrived at Sawgrass.

“You just see more guys slowly taking their deep breaths because they understand what The Players means,” said Morikawa, who already has two majors and a World Golf Championship. “I think I’ve understood over the past couple years what it would mean to me hopefully to hoist a trophy one day.”

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