MIAMI: World number one Dustin Johnson, whose late run last week came up just short of a fourth consecutive PGA victory, is confident as The Players Championship opens Thursday.
The 32-year-old American withdrew from the Masters last month after injuring his back in a fall on the eve of the year’s first major tournament, but returned at the Wells Fargo Championship last week and settled for a share of second, one stroke behind compatriot Brian Harman.
This week, the reigning US Open champion tests the famed TPC Sawgrass course against an elite global field in what promises to be a preview of the tense time he will have defending his first major crown next month at Erin Hills.
“I feel like I’m playing really well right now,” Johnson said. “The game is in really good shape. I’m getting a lot more confidence, especially after last week, playing a lot better on the weekend.”
Johnson has found little success at the event but likes his chances this year given the evolution in his game over the past 12 months.
“My game as a whole has gotten a lot better. I’m interested to see how I can play here this week,” he said. “I haven’t had a lot of success around here. It’s definitely a challenge for me. I feel like if I’m going to play well here this is the time I will play well here.
“It’s going to take four really good rounds if I want to be there on Sunday. I feel like I’m starting to play this course a little bit better. Last year I felt like I was close. This course is tough. If you want to contend here you have to have all facets of your game working well.”
Johnson’s long-driving skills will help him on several holes but he calls the course an ultimate test of every club in the bag.
“It doesn’t matter what you hit off the tee. You’ve got to hit it in the fairway,” he said.
Johnson, who had been a runaway favorite at Augusta National last month, said he doesn’t play a what-if game about how he might have fared at the Masters — whether he could have won the green jacket, which went to Spain’s Sergio Garcia, had he not slipped on stairs and fallen.
“Not really. I didn’t play. Who knows what would have happened?” Johnson said. “Sergio played great. He would have been tough to beat that week. It was great to see him win his first major.”
Excited, but not too excited
As a rule, that’s the sort of thing Johnson doesn’t ponder and works hard not to let it distract him from a laid-back approach and a calm demeanor.
“I try not to let things bother me,” Johnson said. “I think I do a pretty good job of it. It’s just golf at the end of the day. I try to have fun out there and really enjoy it, try not to let anything bother me.”
Johnson said he has not found that harder since he took over as number one in February by winning at Riviera, and after that adding World Golf Championships Mexico and Match Play victories.
“I feel like it’s where I should be and it drives me to continue to work, to continue to try to get better and perform each week at a very high level,” Johnson said of the top ranking.
“I get nervous every day when I’m stepping on the tee, any time coming down the stretch, if I’m around the lead or in the lead, I feel it. But I’ve been there enough times now where I know how to handle it. But I still get nervous.”
Johnson said he also gets the thrills and excitement other players show more outwardly. He just works to contain and control his emotions throughout an entire round.
“I get excited every day,” Johnson said. “A lot of what you do is control your emotions. I get excited when I make a long shot or hit a good putt. But I try not to get too excited about it.”