NAPLES, Florida (AP) — Zach Johnson was a fan of the Merrill Lynch Shootout long before he got an invitation from tournament host Greg Norman.
Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, watched it on TV when he was younger. Now he’s paired with Stewart Cink in the offseason tournament this week at Tiburon Golf Club.
“I’m glad it worked out in my schedule, especially when you have a personal invite from arguably one of the top golfers of all-time in Mr. Norman,” Johnson said. “It’s hard not to take advantage of it. So I feel very fortunate to be here.”
The tournament features 12 two-man teams playing modified alternate shot, best ball and scramble over three days on the layout Norman designed.
“This is one where obviously we’ve got some of the best players in the world playing, and we’re playing our own ball here and there and relying on our partners here and there, but we’re going to have fun,” Johnson said. “We will because we’re good friends. If we can’t have fun we’re not going to play well.”
Jerry Kelly and Rod Pampling are back to defend their title. John Daly and Fred Couples are paired together for the first time.
Couples, who took off most of the season because of back troubles, returned to play in the Skins Game last month and finished second. He has won this event three times.
“We don’t need to go hit the ball pure for three days,” Couples said. “We just need to play our games, and we make a lot of birdies.”
Norman originally was partnered with Steve Stricker, who withdrew for family reasons. Stricker has been replaced by Bubba Watson, who won the U.S. PGA Tour’s driving distance title for the second straight year and finished 55th on the money list.
Other former champions in the field include Norman, Steve Elkington, Scott McCarron, Brad Faxon, Kenny Perry, Mark Calcavecchia, Jeff Sluman and Mark O’Meara. Faxon and McCarron, who aren’t paired together this year, were the first to win back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.
Sunday’s winners share $700,000 out of the $2.8 million purse.