Big hitters Watson, Johnson ending layoffs at Memorial

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May 30, 2012
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Dustin Johnson forgot to tuck any of those flashy white belts into his suitcase when he left south Florida earlier this week. Bubba Watson, on the other hand, didn't have any such fashion emergencies but the reigning Masters champ still finds himself in the same boat as his big-hitting counterpart.

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Neither knows quite what to expect this week as Johnson and Watson return to competition at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance after the longest layoffs of their PGA TOUR careers. Ditto for Steve Marino, who had surgery last fall to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, and plays this week for the first time since late January.

But all three are past ready to play again.

"It's been a long time," Johnson said. "It's definitely been a long time. I forgot to pack some stuff, wasn't quite in the routine. But getting back out here on the golf course feels great. I'm excited to start playing again, and the game is starting to come around."

Johnson, who strained his back pushing a jet ski the weekend prior to the Masters, didn't touch a club for more than a month -- which was even more frustrating considering he'd just had knee surgery last November after the Presidents Cup. So Johnson hasn't played since he tied for 35th at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship in March -- a finish that snapped a string of three straight top-10 performances.

And with the exception of his title defense at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and throwing out the first pitch at a Blue Wahoos game back home in Pensacola, Fla, Watson has been on daddy duty, getting acquainted with his adopted son, Caleb, and hunting for a new home in Orlando. He estimates he's put in three good days of practice in the last month.

"But I got energized as soon as I got here," Watson said. "I got here Sunday afternoon. I got energized, looking forward to the challenge of being out here and beating some of the great players. ... Trying to compete again. That's what I've been missing. I miss the game of golf, miss playing, miss competing, miss trying for championships. So I didn't play as much as I wanted to basically is what I'm saying."

The game's landscape has changed a little since the three have been on the sidelines. Yes, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy are still battling for the world No. 1 spot seemingly every week -- and they'll do it again at Muirfield Village, playing in the United States for the first time since THE PLAYERS Championship where Donald finished sixth and McIlroy missed the cut.

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Current standings
Jason Dufner has the top spot, but five players could unseat him with a victory this week at Murifield Village. Standings

Jason Dufner has won twice, though, including in New Orleans, where Watson made his last start. In fact, Dufner's had a whirlwind of a month not unlike Watson's life-changer -- getting married the week after his breakthrough victory, then finishing first and second in Dallas and Fort Worth, respectively. Dufner, who is now idle until the U.S. Open, has risen to the top of the FedExCup standings, as well.

None of this comes as a shock to Johnson, who put his Twitter followers on "beard watch" during the two-month break but came to Muirfield Village essentially clean-shaven.

"Well, no, Duf has been playing some good golf since last year, so it's not surprising at all," the lanky South Carolinian said. "He's been playing really well. It's good to see some other guys stepping up and playing well. I'm just excited to get back out here and play."

Johnson, who is also playing next week at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, plans to make up for lost time during the summer months. He has slipped from 11th to 23rd in the Ryder Cup standings and wants to be on Davis Love's team for the matches at Medinah.

"I've just got to play well," Johnson said simply. "If I play good golf from now until they pick us, I'll be on the team."

Watson has no such concerns. He leads the U.S. standings after that Masters victory. He hasn't finished lower than 18th in nine starts this season, and he'd like nothing better than to continue that streak at Muirfield Village, where his best performance is a tie for 23rd.

"I've had some good finishes lately," Watson said in understatement. "My mind has been in the right spot lately, so hopefully I can keep that going. Jason Dufner seems like he's doing pretty good, Zach Johnson is doing pretty good, Rickie (Fowler) is top-five every week. I want to be that guy, too, I want to start top-10 all the time or top-20 all the time.

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"Sunday afternoon I want to have a chance to win a golf tournament."

Johnson is similarly optimistic. When he first got the go-ahead to play 18 again about a month ago, his game would come and go in spurts. He remembers rounds where he was 7 under through eight holes and then even through 12. His normally-dependable driver, the last club he got to work on, was the most sporadic in his bag.

Now, though? "I've had a couple weeks of practice and good work, so the golf game is there," Johnson said. "I'm swinging well. Short game is pretty good, it just all depends on the putter, really. If I putt well I'm going to play well."

Watson expects to be rusty. The 3-footers he made in practice rounds back home at Isleworth won't be as easy under pressure on the PGA TOUR. He expects mood swings and attitude adjustments. But he also expects to be able to compete.

"I'm going to be down, I'm going to be up, I'm going to be happy, I'm going to be sad," Watson said. "You're going to feel the nerves for the first time in basically two months, even though I played that one tournament. ... So hopefully I can get over that pretty quick and hit some quality shots.

"When you hit a couple quality shots early it gets you into the round, gets your head in the game. Your caddie is talking to you, he's trying to pump you up, do all those things. For me it's going to be hopefully fight through the rust and the nerves real quick, make some putts and hit some good drives. My game revolves around hitting good tee shots. My iron game is pretty decent. It's just about hitting the tee shots in play where I can advance it towards the green."

And making the putts when he gets there.

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