AUGUSTA, Ga. — More than a few people wouldn’t go out of their way to work or play in South Korea these days.
North Korea, never a bastion of calm, has ratcheted up the rhetoric recently. ”Any issues regarding North and South will be treated in accordance to the state of war,” North Korea’s government said in a special statement.
Zach Johnson, however, plans to be South Korea-bound in two weeks. He will play in the April 25-28 PGA European Tour’s Ballantine’s Championship in Incheon, a half-hour from the border of the two Koreas. The lone Iowan on the PGA Tour committed to the event several weeks ago, and is still planning to make the trip despite the political tensions in the region that only seem to keep increasing.
“My management and the people associated with the tournament are obviously keeping a very watchful eye on what is happening,” Johnson said. “I’m committed to it right now. I’m willing and wanting to go. Only in certain instances would I not go. I’m not going to put myself in a bad position if things seem sketchy.”
But he sounds like a near-certainty to go as of now. Which brings the next question. Why, in the heart of a PGA Tour season, would Johnson want to jet halfway around the world to compete?
“I’ve had numerous requests to go overseas and play, in Europe, the Middle East or Australia,” he said. “I really haven’t taken advantage of it. I played in Korea nearly 10 years ago. I enjoyed it. It’s a long way to go, but good.
“I do want to play globally, to experience world golf more than I have. But with a family and kids (His third child, a daughter, was born five months ago), it wasn’t great timing. This one seems to work. I’ve heard pretty good things about the tournament.
“I’ll be honest with you. I’m not going there to eat sushi. The financial situation is good. It’s good for my sponsors, and it’s good for my family.”
Fellow major-tournament winners Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen have also committed to the 6-year-old event. Dustin Johnson has played in it before. Past winners include world-class players Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood.
But the pressing priority right now is the Masters that starts Thursday at Augusta National. After a brilliant 2012 season that included two PGA Tour wins and a stellar (3-1) performance for the losing U.S. team at last fall’s Ryder Cup, Zach Johnson has had a slow start to 2013 by his normal standards.
The world’s 27th-ranked player has missed the 36-hole cut in three events, and his top finish was 18th in the season-opening Tournament of Champions. Yet, his mood about his game is anything but down.
“Oddly enough,” Johnson said, “I feel very good,” he said. “I know my scores and results haven’t shown it.”
He has taken the last two weeks off from tournament play, and is about to enter his busiest stretch of the season.
“The last two weeks were bittersweet,” said Johnson. “The bitter part is I’ve been off. I was more off than I even knew, fundamentally.
“But the sweet part is that I actually was off. It’s sweet because mentally I was fine and physically I was fine. The problems have been fundamental, something you can fix and work out. I’ve hit so many balls the last four or five weeks that it’s starting to come back. We’ve been monitoring tape and I can see where I’m coming back. I’m going in the right direction and everything’s starting to come together.”
Johnson won the Masters in 2007. His caddie, Damon Green, told the Augusta Chronicle this week that Johnson can “absolutely” win another Masters.
The player never talks about winning when he enters a tournament, but rather, putting everything together and giving himself a chance to contend on Sunday. He has nine Tour wins. He and Phil Mickelson are the only Masters champs since ’07 who have won on the Tour since getting their green jackets. Trevor Immelman, Angel Cabrera, Charl Schwartzel and Bubba Watson are winless since their victories here.
Since his 2007 win here, he has finishes of 20th, 32nd and 42nd, and two missed cuts, not in that order.
“I feel good about where my ball-striking is and I feel good about where my short game is,” Johnson said. “The nice thing is I don’t feel high expectations this week. I just feel good and I’m ready to go play a golf tournament.”
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