PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - American Zach Johnson knows all about conquering the most challenging courses after winning the Masters in 2007 and he says there is a similar process in tackling this week’s venue, the TPC Sawgrass.
The 36-year-old matched the best score of the day with a six-under-par 66 to surge into a three-way tie for the second-round lead at the Players Championship on Friday while world number one Rory McIlroy headed home early after missing the cut.
For Johnson, the challenges of the unforgiving TPC Sawgrass course are not dissimilar to mastering the far more prestigious Augusta National, permanent home of the Masters.
”In some regards it is like Augusta because it’s a huge tournament,“ he said. ”We play Augusta every year. We don’t play the same U.S. Open venue or British Open venue or PGA Championship (venue).
“We play these two venues every year, so the more and more you play them, the more experience you have, the better off you’ll become, knowing just where not to hit shots, knowing where to land shots.”
Northern Irishman McIlroy joked after his premature exit that he would give it another 20 years to try to work out how best to approach a Sawgrass layout which punishes inaccuracy heavily, produces some tight angles and has pacey greens.
Johnson, who shares the 36-hole lead at the Players Championship with compatriots Kevin Na and Matt Kuchar, believe the Sawgrass set-up is perfect for his own playing style.
”I feel like the golf course is good for my game,“ he said. ”Some of the young guys that haven’t played here ask me, ‘What’s the key?’
”You’ve got to putt well, that’s a given, but the key here is getting the ball in the fairway. The greens are small, the fairways are narrow, so you’ve got to get the ball in the fairway to control your spin into these greens because they’re so firm.
“I like knowing that I have to get the ball in the fairway, and everybody else does, too. I don’t think I’ve played great here for four straight days, though,” Johnson added.
The status of the Players Championship is frequently a source of debate, given the tournament’s oft-referenced sub-title of the ‘unofficial fifth major’.
Last year Britain’s Lee Westwood, who skipped the tournament along with McIlroy, rejected that description but Johnson believes it is an apt moniker.
”I think this tournament is huge,“ the straight-hitting American said. ”I know who’s won here the last so many odd years and my point is if you ask me who won a random tournament on Tour in the last 10 years, I don’t think I can tell you.
”But I can tell you who’s won here, and it’s because ‑ it should be a major almost. I think it is. It is in my mind.
“It’s one of my favourite tournaments, and I think the Tour and certainly all of us players hold it in high regard. Maybe time and history will prove it, but I think this tournament is as good as it gets.”
Reporting By Simon Evans; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes