golfer who comes into his own when the odds are stacked against him, he knows how it feels to beat Tiger Woods in the Masters and what it is to raise the Claret Jug at St Andrews. But Can the new American Ryder Cup team captain defy the last 30 years of history and bring a win home from Europe? Robin Barwick wouldn’t bet against him
The Open at St Andrews in 2015 was so wet that ducks paddled on the 18th green of the Old Course. The R&A clubhouse behind the first tee was barricaded with sandbags, but it was too late for the nearby media center, which flooded. The second round began at 6:32am on the Friday and, after delays from flooding and subsequent high winds, it did not finish until 9:18pm on the Saturday.
Zach Johnson didn’t mind at all. He was on the right side of the draw that week, was fortunate to complete his second round before Mother Nature turned dark and stormy, and he watched from the comfort of the great indoors on the Friday afternoon and Saturday while many of his rivals—early leader Dustin Johnson included—toiled through the bad weather and delays. As South Carolina’s Johnson was about to mark his ball on the 14th green, it suddenly rolled away. Louis Oosthuizen—the champ at St Andrews in 2010—thought he was about to play a two-foot putt on 13, until his ball was blown eight feet from the hole. Meanwhile the other Johnson—the one from Iowa—watched some TV, had a little practice and took his wife out for dinner.
Once the 144th Open ran over into a fifth day, Z. Johnson was fresher than most and he took full advantage, picking up seven shots in the first 12 holes.
“Usually on the Old Course you have to take advantage going out and then hold on coming in,” he says now, in an exclusive interview with Kingdom. “I just got off to a rip-roaring start; I was on cruise control. Under those circumstances, in the final round of a major with a few groups playing behind me, that was probably the best start to a round of my career. Then I made a couple bogeys but birdied 18 to shoot six under. I posted a number that I knew had a chance. I thought a play-off was the best-case scenario, and that is how it turned out.”
Johnson had the measure of the front nine that day, and birdies at holes one and two set up a play-off triumph over Oosthuizen and Australia’s Marc Leishman. Johnson, aged 39 at the time and the Masters champ of 2007, added his name to a very short list of golfers to have won major titles at both Augusta National and St Andrews, joining Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods.
“It was an amazing week, just a lot of fun,” recalls Johnson, now 46 and the recently appointed U.S. Ryder Cup captain. “I love the town, the atmosphere, the golf course. I have a lot of appreciation for that place and for everything that has come through there. That is what St Andrews is all about: it represents golf in its purest form.”
That weather was pure, for sure, or maybe “raw” better describes it, but that is what gets Johnson going. It was similar at Augusta in 2007, when the weekend was cold and the azalea petals were strewn around by high, gusty winds. And there he was, rising to the top of the pile with a tie for the highest winning score in Masters history; Johnson won by two with Woods a runner-up alongside Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini.
No golfer has been described as “gritty” as much as Johnson since the “Gritty little Bruin” himself, Corey Pavin; another under-sized major champ who could take down the big guy with a sweetly timed upper cut.
“Corey is one of my favorite golfers of all time,” notes Johnson. “He is someone I could model in many respects.”
The PGA Tour lists Johnson as 5 ft 11, 164 pounds—two inches taller than Pavin in fact—which is small by tour standards, and he was really the shrimp growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second city, and playing golf at Elmcrest Country Club under the guidance of PGA pro Larry Gladson.
“Zach was under-sized but he was a fierce competitor,” recalls Gladson, who joined Elmcrest at around the same time as the Johnson family and 10-year old Zach. “He gave some yards off the tee to the bigger kids but Zach’s strengths were his accuracy and short game. That is what he was.”
That didn’t change. When Johnson won the 2007 Masters he laid up on every single par five over four rounds, scoring 11-under-par on those 16 holes.
Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Johnson held his own on the basketball court and excelled at soccer and golf, although throughout high school and even college he was never the star guy. Johnson kept his full potential under wraps a lot longer than virtually any other professional athlete you can imagine.
“The grit was always there but being on those teams, in those environments, made me want it even more because I was one of the guys who was not supposed to make it,” adds Johnson. “I like being that guy, but I also hate it. It’s like: ‘Don’t tell me I can’t do something.’ That is going to make me want to do it all the more. I know the odds are against me, I firmly understand that, but I am going to work at it and I am going to surround myself with the right people to help me and stretch me and make me uncomfortable.
“It is just the way I am wired. I was pretty good at basketball, soccer and golf but I was never the best on any of those teams. In my senior year at high school I was consistently the number two guy on the golf team. I was always trying to prove myself. Our teams were competitive, and within the teams we competed against each other, too, and that was healthy. These guys were my best friends.”
Elmcrest—“a tremendous individual; he is the best,” says Johnson—and he has recently retired, but still teaches and sits on the board of the Zach Johnson Foundation, which helps under-privileged children in Cedar Rapids.
“It was not obvious at all that Zach would become a tour star,” says Gladson, “but the thing with Zach was that every year he continued to get better, through high school and college. He was still getting better as a golfer when he graduated from college and that is when he decided he was going to try to make it to the PGA Tour. Zach gave himself five years—he would give it everything he had for five years and then re-evaluate.”
Johnson turned professional in 1998, scraped around the Prairie Golf Tour, the Hooters Tour and wherever he could play before really beginning to find his mojo on what was then the Nationwide Tour, in 2003. One step away from the main circuit, Johnson won twice, smashed the prize money record with season earnings of $494,882 and was named Player of the Year. The five-year plan worked like clockwork, and at the age of 28 in 2004, PGA Tour rookie Johnson won the BellSouth Classic. Then, with his path set in stone, Johnson made his Ryder Cup debut on Tom Lehman’s team in 2006.
A year later he was a Masters champ, and in Cedar Rapids the street up leading up to Elmcrest CC is now called “Zach Johnson Drive.”
“All his success and glory has not changed the man he is one bit,” adds Gladson. “Zach knows where he is from and his character has remained the same, and we just think the world of him in Iowa.”
Steve Williams, the abrasive caddie for Woods for many years, once told Golf Digest: “Some players can’t be intimidated and Zach Johnson is at the top of that list. He knows his game, its strengths and limitations and he trusts it… It doesn’t mean Zach will win every time; it just means he won’t lose because of the guy standing across from him.”
Johnson has proved the point time and again, not least in the Ryder Cup. Despite being on losing American teams four times in five appearances, Johnson’s singles record reads three wins, one defeat and one tie. No, Johnson doesn’t win every time, but he was the singles opponent no European wanted.
Even as Europe edged towards a hard-fought victory at Celtic Manor in 2010, Johnson would not concede an inch late in the singles matches. He defeated European talisman Padraig Harrington 3&2 just before the home side clinched it. Two years later, as the American singles line-up crumbled at Medinah, Johnson stood resolute to defeat Graeme McDowell 2&1. Johnson was one of only three home players to deliver a point that day.
Despite the dominance of the United States in the last Ryder Cup, at Whistling Straits last year—winning 19-9 to post the biggest margin of victory since the British and Irish team expanded to all of Europe in 1979—the Stars and Stripes have a poor away record in the biennial event. It has not won in Europe since 1993, when Johnson was still in high school.
Being the U.S. Ryder Cup captain away from home has become one of the toughest assignments in golf, and so what did Johnson say when he was announced as skipper in March? “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
From six simple words, therein lies leadership.
“We will be going into an arena where the odds are against us,” explains Johnson, who will lead the American charge at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Rome in September 2023. “But I don’t know anything different in my life. That is just the way I am built. I welcome the challenge. I fully embraced it as a player and I will as a captain.”
There is no doubt, Johnson has fully embraced the challenge of being underdog all his life. The PGA of America has chosen well.