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Saudi distraction behind, Johnson ready to get back on track

“It’s not cutting,” Johnson said with a laugh, the words not long coming out of his mouth when he could see the ball splashing away.

He asked for 7 wood, the club he thought he was hitting first, and attempted a draw. This one started on the right side with a fade, ending deep near the cart path.

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

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

Whether that changes this week is irrelevant.

Johnson looked more at peace than he has in months, despite enduring the longest stretch of his career without a win. His last win was the Saudi international 13 months ago. His last title on the PGA Tour was the Masters in November 2020.

The simple explanation – “Not a very simple answer”, he said – is that he didn’t play well. Digging a little deeper, he mentioned relentless driver testing last year that kept him from working on his entire game.

“Just a frustrating year,” he said.

There was more at stake, which Johnson only conceded when pressed.

Although he never indicated how he relied on the rival Saudi-funded league, the amount of money was such that he had to listen. Johnson would have been the main catch for the new league that Greg Norman is trying to put together.

Two days after missing the cut at Riviera, a course Johnson has played better than anyone in the past decade, he released a short statement that his loyalty is to the PGA Tour. It was a big blow for the Saudi championshipand that might have freed Johnson from a major distraction.

“Anytime 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’s too much of a distraction. Maybe it was, I don’t know. I can’t really answer that.

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

“I’m happy to play golf where I am,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to focus entirely on golf and play on the PGA Tour. This was the main reason for the statement.

Johnson is approaching a major milestone of the year, starting with Augusta National in a month and including his wedding to longtime partner Paulina Gretzky two weeks after the Masters.

This week’s stake is a chance to show that his game is moving 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 world’s top 50, a list that includes Phil Mickelson, who has been on a self-imposed break since his published remarks in which he disparaged the Saudis, the rival league and the PGA Tour.

The rival league dominated much of the conversation with nothing more than rumors of who will play how much they are offered.

This could finally give way to the Stadium Course, which usually does not lack entertainment. As at other tournaments this year, spectators are back at full capacity, with most of them congregating along the dynamic finish line of the accessible par-5 16th (water on the right), the par- 3 17th with its green island (water everywhere) and 18th (water on the left).

The winner gets a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and three-year exemptions for the Masters, the US Open and the British Open. The benefits go beyond pure silver.

The tournament keeps getting bigger, and even younger players like Collin Morikawa have caught on to that. It was special for him when he came to Sawgrass.

“You just see more guys taking their deep breaths slowly because they understand what The Players means,” said Morikawa, who already has two majors and a golf world championship. “I think I’ve come to understand over the past two years what it would mean for me to lift a trophy one day.”

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