If you think about it, Zach Johnson’s two peak career seasons were eclipses of what wasn’t at the time.
In April 2007, the man survived the most brutal Masters tournament. Cool, then cold, then furiously windy. Augusta was a mess of boats and snapping turtles. Johnson played his third-to-last double on Sunday, finishing with a dramatic up-and-down on 18, then buried his face in his wife Kim’s shoulder, trying to stifle his emotions. He was the sole leader of the competition. Mythical things. But all our attention was on Tiger Woods, who took the lead at the start of the fourth round, lost it, went back with an eagle on 13 and was two down. But Tiger Tide was overwhelmed and to this day you can still hear the air coming out of the diffuser’s balloon. Little-known Iowan Johnson shot the Masters 289 (+1) to record the highest winning score ever at Augusta. Days later, on “Letterman,” he made the top 10 list, landing at No. 6: “I’ve never even heard of it.” The next day, Tiger was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
and July 2015. The Open Championship at St. Andrews. Another brutal week. Enough wind and rain to make him finish only his second Monday in the Druid-related race. Johnson shot a low final-round 66 and sat in the clubhouse for an hour as the world watched Jordan Spieth. The marketable profile of the post-Tiger world of golf action was seeing the third leg of the Grand Slam calendar fall from the sky. He had to win. But he got one shot back. Johnson returned to the course to defeat Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a four-hole match. The next day’s New York Times headline read: “Zach Johnson’s Grand Win Over Jordan Spieth Bids for History.”
That’s how Zach Johnson has been in golf’s collective consciousness for much of his career: always there, elusive, incredibly successful. Davis Love III, one of Johnson’s closest friends, was furious. “Zach was introduced at the first tournament and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, dang – he’s won two majors and (12) tournaments?’ You go.
But now everything is different. Johnson is in Rome this week as the United States captain for the 2023 Ryder Cup — a game that seems long overdue for one of the game’s oft-overlooked figures. He is here, in part, as a result of coercion. In the year In early 2022, near the beginning of the professional golf course war between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, a group of Johnson’s peers — Love III and other US Ryder Cup leaders — urged him to accept the captaincy. As Love put it, Johnson was seen as “a man that everybody could trust.”
Johnson saw nothing of this coming.
“I thought there were two other guys who were probably ahead of me (the nominees) in age and, I would say, greatness,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I thought I might be lining up for the Presidents Cup a few years down the road, but this might happen.”
Johnson is walking his dogs Auggie (Augusta) and Andy (St. Andrews) on St. Simons Island and talking on the phone. He’s a week away from the Ryder Cup and he’s trying to process it all. He walks quickly to breathe hard. St. Simons is a resort community on the southern Georgia coast where Johnson’s family lives, about a thousand miles from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his hometown.
It has been 31 years since an American team won the Ryder Cup on European soil, and Tom Watson led the Americans to victory at The Belfry. The tail ranks those associated with it. Many times Americans go abroad with top to bottom talent and top status, etc., etc., and come back humiliated.
A win this week? Rubbing a lineup that finally cracks the code? Sparkling champagne at Marco Simons Golf Club? It’s a recipe for changing how Johnson is viewed as a whole. Maybe that’s all it takes for some to appreciate how it got here.
“I don’t know, but I’ve always been a very efficient person to take advantage of opportunities,” Johnson said.
As Jamie Burmel recalled, 17-year-old Zach Johnson shot 80-81 at the Iowa State tournament as the Cedar Rapids Regis’ senior.
Like most Midwest kids, Johnson grew up hiding his clubs in a garage for six months of the year, when it was cold in Iowa and he had Hawkeyes football. Young Zach was an athlete. Football, baseball, whatever. He loved team sports and threw his body around. Good thing his father was a chiropractor.
Golf has always been a means to an end. Johnson began playing at age 10, receiving instruction at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids. He finished well enough to earn All-County honors, but was largely off the radar of college coaches. Barrell, now the coach at the University of Kansas, then the coach at Drake University in Des Moines, noticed it only by chance. He was recruiting another young man who stood too tall on the ball and was so fed up with watching him that he began to investigate his 5-foot-8 teammate. The boy was in good shape on the shot.
The big schools? Little did they know about the young man who would become the greatest player Iowa would ever produce. why? “Because he’s not good,” says Barrell.
Instead, Johnson chose between interest from Drake and St. Ambrose University, an NAIA school in Davenport.
In fact, this was meant to be. Johnson was not the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year. He wasn’t even an all-conference selection. He wasn’t the best player on the team. Most players of his caliber would have gone to Drake, played four years of college golf and then gone into teaching or business or something.
Instead, after graduation, Zach Johnson declared himself a pro.
Morris Pickens, Johnson’s sports psychologist, explained years later: “Zach always thought he was going to get better, and at some point his best would be better than the other guys.” He works on the premise that if it’s an endurance race and their run is better than their run, he’ll take the chance.
But at the time, people thought Zac was delusional.
“Holy sh—you’re the third guy on Drake and you’re going to be a pro?” I thought. “Every year there’s a lot of guys who think they’re going to make it. They usually know how it’s going to end.”
A number of great athletes in other sports have retired. Great American and European golfers will captain the Ryder Cup. The place, in theory, is the laurel of honor.
How one manages the Ryder Cup, however, requires work and comes with a level of achievement. Ahead of the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington openly weighed how losing him as captain would affect his legacy. Notably, two of the game’s all-time greats, Tom Watson (2014, Gleneagles) and Nick Faldo (2008, Valhalla), are tied for Ryder Cup flops without hitting a ball.
One way to describe the mission is thankless. If a Ryder Cup team wins, the team is honored. If the Ryder Cup team loses, the captain is responsible. Corey Pavin In 2010 at Celtic Manor, he could be mocked by the US team for wearing ill-fitting rain gear. It’s all fair game.
Most work is invisible. Being a captain requires a lot of legwork, meetings and organizational paperwork. It is an annual relationship. Site visits. Affiliated with the PGA of America. Media obligations. Endless minutes. Then comes everything that has gone public. The centurion chooses. The construction. The week of the event. Choosing the final pair. Giving a Saturday night talk. Sending Sunday singles.
Every captain has to fit the role of who he is.
“The thing about being a captain is you can’t change your personality,” said Jim Furyk, who coached the 2018 U.S. team at Le Golf National. “If you’re going to be rah-rah, you have to be rah-rah or you’re going to scare people. If you are naturally quiet and suddenly start speaking, it will not be good, because everyone will be left scratching their heads.
“You have to be yourself and pick and choose your moments.”
For Johnson, being him means being very Iowan. Honest. Process driven. hard working. Works with extraordinary attention to detail. He writes everything down and loves lists – making lists, looking at lists, checking things off lists. Although he recently referred to the US team’s analytics staff as a “nerd herd,” Johnson doesn’t shy away from data.
“Organization is not going to be an issue,” says Love III, one of Johnson’s five vice captains, along with Furyk, Steve Stricker, Fred Couples and Stuart Sink. “And Zach trusts him when he makes a decision.”
The main thing is that the decisions are accepted and implemented. This takes faith.
Tour players have long been drawn to him, a counter, perhaps, to a public image that can sometimes be easily interpreted as sick. He is very popular among colleagues. In the 30s and 40s, Johnson, comfortable in his own skin, welcomed young stars as they joined the tour. From Rickie Fuller to Justin Thomas to Scotty Scheffler.
In the year When Johnson won at St. Andrews in 2015, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth — who saw his pursuit of a Grand Slam end that day in Sin Valley — snaked through the crowd near the 18th green, chanting, “Zach! Threatened!” Bursting into the pack, Spieth wrapped Johnson in a joyous hug and stepped aside to give him the stage.
Those relationships mean something when it comes time for decisions.
“I’m telling you, people are excited to play for Zach,” said Brian Harman, 36, this year’s Open Championship winner and Ryder Cup rookie. “He’s one of those guys who’s easy to like, easy to root for. Everyone here knows his story is amazing.
Johnson spent his first three years out of school on the Prairie Tour, a Midwest-based mini-tour. He walked into any event carrying a bag. His fan chase was backed by a group in Elmcrest, which put up about $5,000 a head to keep him on the road. Most of them thought they were doing the good boy a favor. He didn’t expect it to come back.
Johnson has taken annual runs at the PGA Tour Qualifying School but never advanced past the first round.
A few years later, the old Drake coach barrel ran into Johnson at the Great Waterloo Open. The event attracted a good number of amateurs and intermediate professionals. The winner gets one of these big checks. First Prize: $15,000. Barrell asked if Johnson was enjoying the professional life — living out of his car, surviving on fast food.
“I hate it, but I’m not going to stop until I make progress,” Johnson replied.
In the year In 2001, at the age of 25, Johnson won the Iowa Open, taking $15,000 out of a $60,000 purse. “This is the biggest event I’ve won,” he told the Des Moines Register, “especially in this field.” A few weeks later, Johnson won the Hooters Tour event. He then won two more and was named Hooters Tour Guide of the Year. He earned an exemption into the Mitchell Championship and made his PGA Tour debut in Williamsburg, Va. He missed the race.
The following spring, Johnson qualified for the 2002 Bell Southern Classic outside Atlanta on Monday, his second PGA Tour event. He made the cut, then crept up the leaderboard, finally showing up over the weekend in a Ralph Lauren polo and an unorganized title hat. On the 72nd hole, Johnson stuck his approach on 18 when Johnny Miller hit a hole in the air. He was 41 inches from the closing birdie, a top-10 finish, a six-figure check and should be free next week. Greater Greensboro Open. Instead, he landed three out and tied for 17th on the leaderboard. He finished 94th at Q School that summer, again missing the tour.
In the year In 2003, Johnson came back from six shots down in the final round to win the National Tour Rim Classic and beat Steve Haskins in a playoff. He won $85,500, essentially securing himself a top-20 finish on the national money list at the time and the 2004 PGA Tour card. That day, 27-year-old Zach sat in the clubhouse parking lot with his wife and told Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids newspaper over the phone, “That’s all I wanted.”
Then Zach and Kim moved to Florida and locked into a routine with longtime teacher Mike Bender. All the pieces of Johnson’s game are starting to come together. That picture. time. The pills. Put accuracy. Chris DiMarco, who helped establish Johnson in Orlando, remembers him coming in as “a guy who won at every level and learned how to kick people’s necks.”
The next year, as a PGA Tour rookie, Johnson returned to the BellSouth Classic and got revenge with a three-putt. He beat Mark Hensby by a stroke, posting a victory in his 13th career tour start. First place prize: $810,000. Johnson was 28.
Looking back 20 years later, Hensby can’t believe what has happened since then.
“I remember saying, ‘Hey, this guy’s going to be great,’ especially back then,” Hensby said. “
Johnson changed his PGA Tour status to the longest cut and regular top 10s. He qualified for the 2006 Ryder Cup team by finishing ninth in the US points standings.
Six months later, he won his second event as a PGA Tour player – the 2007 Masters. He would spend the next 10 years in the top 50 of the world.
Zach Johnson traveled to the temporary stage in Rome on Monday afternoon, arriving at the opening press conference of Marco Simone with European captain Luke Donald. Johnson held the Ryder Cup carefully, his left hand under the base, his right hand gently gripping the stem. Part of his job as the captain of the winning team is to carry the trophy before the game starts. Another part of the job is to return home.
They don’t care about three decades of history saying it won’t.
Johnson’s eyebrows rose with the question when asked about the American team’s never-ending frustrations abroad. He rambled on the answer before dropping a fact he knew better than anyone: “It’s hard to win outside your comfort zone.”
It all felt so appropriate. Perhaps there’s a reason Johnson’s two major victories came in the most difficult circumstances.
Pickens, a sports psychologist who has worked with Johnson since 2004, “used his competitiveness to get him into a thought process that allowed him to relax and focus.” They are not easily measured.
That’s why his peers give him more respect than the media or the public. He developed a career that he felt more like a reluctance, born of passion than obvious talent. Think about it – Johnson’s personal record is 8-7-2 despite playing on four of the five losing Ryder Cup teams.
He did what he always tries to do this week.
He won when he wasn’t.
The Weird, the Awesome and the Shirt: 60 Years of Ryder Cup Fashion
(Image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photo: Michael Reeves / Getty Images)