PALM CITY, Fla. — In some cases, it was hard to identify the pros from the members in this weekend’s Pro-Member at The Floridian. The best news for Presidents Cup playing captain Tiger Woods was the status of Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, neither of whom has hit a shot that counted since Aug. 25, in the final round of the Tour Championship.
Fowler, who spent his time away ensconced in a marriage and honeymoon, birdied his first four holes on his way to an opening-round 63 in a net better ball that he called, with a smile, his "first day of competition.” He was paired with Jim Crane, owner of both the Floridian and the Houston Astros.
Johnson, coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, played alongside fabled swing instructor Butch Harmon, who has a golf school on the property and designed the club’s par-3 course that is used for the two-day tournament.
In the days leading up to this Pro-Member, Fowler and Johnson had been practicing at facilities in the area, including Michael Jordan’s course in Hobe Sound, Grove XXIII. Both Fowler and Johnson “know their golf swings very well,” per Harmon.
“Yes, they haven’t played much. But, the both of them know what to work on when they come back," he said. "The thing that impressed me today playing with them is that Rickie putted the ball beautifully. Dustin putted the ball beautifully. They’d hit a loose drive here and there, but in general they both played beautiful golf. You can’t hide talent. Natural talent. Natural ability. It’s just a matter of going back to work, going back the things you’ve always done. You try new equipment. When we went on the first tee, DJ brought out 10 putters 30 minutes before we teed off. He fooled around with the one he picked and putted beautifully.”
While the Presidents Cup scheduled for Dec. 9 at Royal Melbourne, these were actually practice rounds before the real practice rounds at the Hero World Challenge, Dec. 4-7. Both Rickie and D.J. have reputations of being able to scrape off the rust without much trouble.
“This is the longest break I’ve ever had,” Fowler explained while mentioning the demands of the new schedule. "One of the biggest things is being rested and ready to get back and playing. It’s been nice to be refreshed. I still played a lot prior to the wedding.”
What lengthened Fowler's downtime and withdrawal from the Mayakoba Golf Classic Nov. 14-18 was an intestinal bacterial infection, a case of food poisoning.
As for Johnson: “I know even after a long layoff what it takes to be ready in tournament shape," he said. “Obviously simulating tournament rounds is very difficult. Stuff like this helps, though. I know it’s pretty relaxed, but you still can put a little pressure on yourself. You’ve got to make some putts so it definitely helps."
The only thing Johnson didn’t like about his break was that it was forced on him. "It’s a little different being forced to take time off,” he said. “It would have been nicer to take time off for just myself.”
Asked if he missed being away from competition, Johnson paused for a second before saying with a playful smile, “No. Not really.”
As for the final leaderboard, Fowler and Crane were runners-up to winners Corey Conners and Kevin Sullivan, with Johnson and Harmon tying for fourth.