If you think about it, Zach Johnson’s two pinnacle career moments were, at the time, eclipsed by what didn’t happen.
April 2007. The man survived the most brutal of Masters Tournaments. Cool, then cold, then furiously windy. Augusta was a mess of vests and mock turtlenecks. Johnson played in Sunday’s third-to-last pairing, completed a dramatic up-and-down on 18, then buried his face into his wife Kim’s shoulder, trying to stifle his emotions. He was the tournament’s solo leader. Fairy tale stuff. All our focus, though, was on Tiger Woods, who’d held the lead early in the fourth round, lost it, stormed back with an eagle on 13, and was two back with two to go. But Tiger’s surge fizzled and to this day you can still hear the air coming out of the broadcast’s balloon. Johnson, a little-known Iowan, won the Masters with a final score of 289 (+1), tying for the highest winning score ever at Augusta. Presenting the Top 10 list on “Letterman” days later, he came to No. 6: “Even I’ve never heard of me.” 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 force only the second Monday finish in a tournament dating to the Druids. Johnson shot a low final-round 66, then sat in the clubhouse for roughly an hour as the world watched Jordan Spieth. Golf’s wunderkind was eyeing the third leg of a calendar year Grand Slam, falling from heaven as some kind of marketable manifestation of a post-Tiger world. He was supposed to win. But he finished one shot back. Johnson returned to the course to beat Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a four-hole playoff. The next day’s New York Times headline read: “Zach Johnson’s Grand Win Slams Door on Jordan Spieth’s Bid for History.”
This is how Zach Johnson has existed in golf’s collective consciousness for much of his career: always there, easily overlooked, oddly successful. Davis Love III, one of Johnson’s closest friends, is bemused. “Zach gets introduced on the first tee at a tournament and you kinda go, ‘Oh, wow, dang — he won two majors and (12) tournaments?’”
But now everything is different. Johnson is in Rome this week as United States captain for the 2023 Ryder Cup — what feels like an epochal moment for one of the game’s oft-ignored figures. He’s here, in part, as a product of duress. Early in 2022, around the outset of professional golf’s turf war between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, a group of Johnson’s peers — Love III and other U.S. Ryder Cup leaders — urged him to accept the captaincy. As Love puts it, Johnson was seen as “someone who everyone trusts.”
Johnson didn’t see any of this coming.
“Given (the candidates) ahead of me in age and, I would say, clout, I thought there were a couple of other guys that would probably be chosen,” Johnson says. “To be honest, I thought I might be in line for a Presidents Cup a few years down the road, potentially, but not this.”
Johnson is speaking by phone, walking his dogs, Augie (Augusta) and Andy (St. Andrews), around his neighborhood in St. Simons Island. It’s one week until departure for the Ryder Cup and he’s attempting to process all of this. He’s walking fast enough to breathe hard. St. Simons is a resort community along the southern Georgia coast, where Johnson’s family resides, about a thousand miles from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the hometown with which he deeply identifies.
It’s been 31 years since a U.S. team won the Ryder Cup on European soil, when Tom Watson captained the Americans to a win at The Belfry. The streak rankles those associated with it. Often, the Americans have gone abroad with more top-to-bottom talent and higher rankings, etc., etc., only to return humbled.
A win this week? Massaging a lineup that finally cracks the code? Spraying champagne at Marco Simone Golf Club? It’s a recipe to possibly change how Johnson is viewed at large. Maybe this is what it will take for some to appreciate how he got here.
“I don’t know,” Johnson says, “but I’ve always been someone who’s very efficient in capitalizing on opportunities.”
As Jamie Bermel remembers it, 17-year-old Zach Johnson shot 80-81 in the Iowa state tournament as a Cedar Rapids Regis High senior.
Like most Midwest kids, Johnson grew up stashing his clubs in a garage for six months a year, when Iowa turned cold and Hawkeyes football took hold. Young Zach was an athlete. Soccer, baseball, whatever. He liked team sports and threw his body around. Good thing his dad was a chiropractor.
Golf was always a means to an end. Johnson began playing around 10, finding instruction at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids. He ended up being good enough to earn all-county honors, but he was mostly off the radar of college coaches. Bermel, today the coach at Kansas University, then the coach at Drake University in Des Moines, only noticed him by chance. He was recruiting another young man who stood over the ball too long and got so fed up watching him that he began checking out his 5-foot-8 playing partner. The kid had a nice shape to his shot.
The bigger schools? They knew nothing of the young man who would go on to be the greatest player Iowa would ever produce. Why? “Because he wasn’t all that good,” Bermel says.
Instead, Johnson chose between interest from Drake and St. Ambrose University, an NAIA school in Davenport.
This, in reality, should’ve been it. Johnson was never Missouri Valley Conference player of the year. He was never even an all-conference selection. He wasn’t the best player on his 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 professional.
Years later, Morris Pickens, Johnson’s sports psychologist, would explain: “Zach always had the mindset that he would keep getting better, and at some point, his good would be better than other guys’ good. He’s operated with the idea that, if it’s a race of endurance, and his process being better than their process, then he’ll take his chance.”
But at the time, people thought Zach was delusional.
“I thought, ‘holy sh–, you’re the third guy at Drake and you’re gonna turn pro?’” Bermel said. “There are a lot of guys every year who think they can make it. Usually, they figure out how it’s gonna end.”
Great athletes in other sports have their numbers retired. Great American and European golfers get to be Ryder Cup captains. The position is, in theory, an honorary laurel.
How one leads a Ryder Cup, however, requires work and comes with a degree of consequence. Before the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, Irishman Padraig Harrington openly weighed how a loss as captain might impact his legacy. Famously, two of the game’s all-time greats, Tom Watson (2014, Gleneagles) and Nick Faldo (2008, Valhalla), are inescapably tied to Ryder Cup flops without ever striking a ball.
Thankless is one way to describe the assignment. If a Ryder Cup team wins, the team is celebrated. If a Ryder Cup team loses, the captain is blamed. Corey Pavin can still be ridiculed for the U.S. team wearing ill-fated rain gear at Celtic Manor in 2010. It’s all fair game.
Much of the job goes unseen. A captaincy requires loads of leg work, meetings and organizational folderol. It’s yearlong communication. Site visits. Dealing with the PGA of America. Media obligations. Endless minutiae. Then comes everything that’s out in the open. The captain’s picks. The buildup. The week of the event. Choosing final pairings. Giving that Saturday night speech. Sending out Sunday singles.
Every captain has to fit who he is into the role.
“The thing about being a captain is, you can’t change your personality,” says Jim Furyk, who captained the losing 2018 U.S. team at Le Golf National. “If you’re a rah-rah guy, you have to be a rah-rah guy, or you’ll make people nervous. If you’re quiet by nature and, all the sudden, you start giving speeches, that won’t go over well, ’cause everyone will be there scratching their heads.
“You have to be yourself and pick and choose your moments.”
For Johnson, being who he is means being very Iowan. Honest. Process-driven. Diligent. He operates with an abnormal attention to detail. He writes everything down and loves lists — making lists, looking at lists, checking things off lists. Though he recently referred to the U.S. team’s analytics crew as the “nerd herd,” Johnson isn’t dismissive of data.
“Organization will not be an issue,” says Love III, one of Johnson’s five vice-captains, along with Furyk, Steve Stricker, Fred Couples and Stewart Cink. “And when Zach makes a decision, he’ll be confident in it.”
The key is for those decisions to be accepted and executed. That takes trust.
Fellow tour players have long gravitated toward him, a counter, perhaps, to a public image of him that can sometimes translate as ill at ease. He is exceedingly well-liked among fellow pros. In his 30s and into his 40s, Johnson, comfortable in his skin, welcomed the young stars joining the tour. From Rickie Fowler to Justin Thomas to Scottie Scheffler.
When Johnson won at St. Andrews in 2015, a 21-year-old Jordan Spieth — who had seen his pursuit of a Grand Slam end that day in the Valley of Sin — snaked through the crowd near 18 green, calling out, “Zach! Zach!” Breaking through a pack of bodies, Spieth wrapped Johnson in a congratulatory hug, then stepped aside to give him the stage.
Those relationships mean something when the time comes for decisions.
“I’m telling you, people are excited to play for Zach,” says Brian Harman, 36, this year’s Open Championship winner and a Ryder Cup rookie. “He’s one of those guys who is easy to like, easy to root for. Everyone here knows his story is pretty incredible.”
Johnson spent his first three years out of school kicking around the Prairie Tour, a Midwest-based mini-tour. He entered any event offering a purse. His pro pursuit was backed by a group of members at Elmcrest who put up about $5,000 a head to keep him on the road. Most of them figured they were just doing a favor for a good kid. No one expected a return.
Johnson took annual runs at PGA Tour Qualifying School but never advanced past the first stage.
A few years into it, Bermel, the old Drake coach, ran into Johnson at the Greater Waterloo Open. The event drew good amateurs and middling pros. The winner got one of those big checks. First-place prize: $15,000. Bermel asked if Johnson was enjoying professional life — living out of his car, surviving on fast food.
“I hate it,” Johnson replied, “but as long as I keep improving, I’m not going to stop.”
In 2001, at age 25, Johnson won the Iowa Open, taking home $15,000 of the $60,000 purse. “This is the biggest event I’ve won,” he told The Des Moines Register, “especially with this field.” A few weeks later, Johnson won a Hooters Tour event. Then he won two more and was named Hooters Tour Player of the Year. He earned an exemption into the Michelob Championship and made his PGA Tour debut in Williamsburg, Va. He missed the cut.
The next spring, Johnson Monday qualified into the 2002 BellSouth Classic outside Atlanta, his second PGA Tour event. He made the cut, then crept up the leaderboard, eventually appearing on the weekend broadcast in a Ralph Lauren polo and an unstructured Titleist hat. On the 72nd hole, with Johnny Miller openly rooting for him on-air, Johnson stuck his approach on 18. He was 41 inches from a closing birdie, a top-10 finish, a six-figure check and an exemption into the following week’s Greater Greensboro Open. Instead, he three-putted and landed tied for 17th on the leaderboard. He finished 94th in Q School later that summer, again missing out on the tour.
In 2003, Johnson came from six shots back in the final round to win the Nationwide Tour’s Rheem Classic, beating Steve Haskins in a playoff. He won $85,500, essentially assuring himself of a top-20 finish on the season Nationwide money list and a 2004 PGA Tour card. That day, sitting in the clubhouse parking lot alongside his wife, 27-year-old Zach told Mike Hlas from the Cedar Rapids Gazette by phone: “This is all I’ve ever wanted.”
Zach and Kim then moved to Florida and locked into a routine with longtime teacher Mike Bender. All parts of Johnson’s game began to come together. That draw. The tempo. The wedges. Precision putting. Chris DiMarco, who helped set Johnson up in Orlando, remembers him arriving as “a guy who had won at every level and learned how to step on people’s necks.”
The following year, as a PGA Tour rookie, Johnson returned to the BellSouth Classic and avenged his 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.
Thinking back, 20 years later, Hensby can’t believe what’s happened since.
“I specifically remember telling a few other players then, ‘Hey, this guy is gonna be really good,’” Hensby says. “Now, did I think he was gonna be that good? Win two major championships and how-many-ever PGA Tour events? No, absolutely not. Never.”
Johnson turned his PGA Tour status into a long run of made cuts and regular top 10s. He qualified for the 2006 Ryder Cup team by finishing ninth on the U.S. points list.
Six months later, he won his second event as a PGA Tour player — the 2007 Masters. He would spend the next 10 years ranked inside the world top 50.
Zach Johnson walked onto a temporary stage in Rome on Monday afternoon, arriving alongside European captain Luke Donald for the opening news conference at Marco Simone. Johnson held the Ryder Cup cautiously, left hand beneath the base, right hand gently grasping the stem. Part of his job as captain of the defending winning team is to carry the cup around before play begins. The other part of his job is to bring it back home.
Never mind those three decades of history that say he won’t.
Asked about the American team’s endless frustrations abroad, Johnson’s eyebrows rose with the question. He wandered through a reply before settling on a fact that he knew better than anyone else: “It’s hard to win outside your comfort zone.”
It all felt too appropriate. Maybe there’s a reason Johnson’s two major victories came in the harshest conditions.
“He harnessed his competitiveness and put it into a thinking process that allows him to kind of ebb and flow between relaxing and focusing in a productive way,” says Pickens, the sports psychologist who has worked with Johnson since 2004. “Zach possesses skills that aren’t easily measurable.”
Maybe that is why his fellow pros have long given him more credit than the media or general public. He maxed out a career that feels more than anything like an act of defiance, born from sheer will rather than obvious talent. Consider — four of the five Ryder Cup teams Johnson played on lost, yet his individual record stands 8-7-2.
He’s always done what he’ll try to do this week.
He’s won when he wasn’t supposed to.
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(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)