Zach Johnson heads to Augusta after joining elite company with British Open win
It’s a pretty exclusive fraternity of players who have won major championships on the two most iconic golf courses in the world – the Old Course at St. Andrews and Augusta National.
Sam Snead. Jack Nicklaus. Seve Ballesteros. Nick Faldo. Tiger Woods.
And Zach Johnson.
Eight years after his surprise victory at the 2007 Masters, Johnson became Champion Golfer of the Year with a playoff victory at the home of golf.
“That’s a good list,” Johnson said of the Hall of Famers and soon-to-be-one who accomplished the feat before him.
The second major victory makes Johnson eligible for consideration in the World Golf Hall of Fame, who like Woods became eligible this year after turning 40. With 12 career PGA Tour victories, the Sea Island, Ga., resident from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, already has a pretty good case started.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” Johnson said. “To me the hall of fame is something where you kind of decide to hang things up and reminisce. I’m not going to reminisce at this point. I’m going to keep playing. If it does happen at some point, then I’m going to be very honored.”
Suffice to say, he’s come a long way from the Hooters Tour in 2001.
“Is there a hall of fame for that?” he said, laughing.
If Johnson didn’t seem like the logical winner at St. Andrews, it’s only because people weren’t paying attention to his trending success on links courses. Top 10s at Royal Lytham in 2012 and Muirfield in 2013 had Johnson brimming with confidence.
“It’s the one,” he said of the majors he felt most likely to win. “I think I missed the first three cuts in that tournament and made them all since. The love was immediate. The love for the golf courses and the love for what it demands – from a physical, technical and mental standpoint.”
He handled all of the tests in a final round that was pushed to Monday because of high winds. With a leaderboard filled with elite players making runs and falling back, Johnson stayed steady. He shot 6-under in the first round despite dealing with the toughest weather of the day and held it together in the third round when nothing seemed to be going well for him.
“The stretch where I feel like I won the golf tournament was the third round,” he said. “Pretty benign day, I go out and hit it great and the first 13 holes I’d hit every green and parred every hole. At that point it could have gone either way and I brought it in at 2-under. Made three birdies coming in and to me that got me into a position for Monday where I could go out and win. I’m glad I hung in there because I was so frustrated because I missed every putt.”
The putt Johnson knew he had to make came on the 72nd hole. When his 30-footer dropped in the cup for birdie to set the clubhouse lead at 15-under with the day’s low round of 66, Johnson crouched into a fist pump while his caddie, Damon Green, flapped around with the pin like a bird.
“It’s THE putt I’ve made,” he said. “Outside of the Ryder Cup, that’s the putt. No questions asked. End of story. At Augusta in ’07 I made a lot of putts more in the middle of the back nine and not at the end. That’s the putt I’m always going to remember.
“I figured if I two-putted that the chances of me winning would be less than 5 (percent). If I make it, there was a decent chance of a playoff and a 10 percent chance of winning it outright. That being said, fortunately I didn’t focus on making it. I focused on hitting a good putt.”
The putt got him into a playoff with 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, and Marc Leishman. With birdies on the first two holes of the four-hole aggregate playoff, Johnson prevailed to win the claret jug.
What does winning majors at historic venues like St. Andrews and Augusta National mean to him?
“Winning any tournament means a lot, but when you have majors involved it means substantially a lot more,” he said. “If anything it means my game can fit on two drastically different golf courses. That’s probably what I take pride in the most. And that I can execute under duress in difficult situations.”
After months of letting each of his team members celebrate with the game’s oldest trophy, he looks forward to bringing it with him to Augusta.
“It’s great to go back anywhere as the Open champion, but my assumption is it’s going to feel really good at Augusta,” he said. “It’s near and dear to my heart, I’m excited to introduce the claret jug to the green jacket.”
Consistency has always been Johnson’s hallmark to success. He’s still surrounded by the same loyal team as when he started and has remained mostly a fixture inside the top 50 since his first tour victory at TPC Sugarloaf in 2004.
“It just goes to show I’m doing the right things,” he said. “My valleys are never really that low and as a result I feel like I can get back on top if it does drop. I don’t ever want to take this game for granted. The moment I think I have it is the moment it chews me up and spits me out. I love my team and love the direction I’m going.”
On paper, Augusta always seemed like the last place Johnson would win a major. Yet in uncharacteristic cold conditions in 2007, Johnson made it his first. Now he returns more confident than ever that he can compete in any conditions against players seemingly more suited to Augusta. Last year he posted his only other top 10 (T9) at Augusta in ideal scoring conditions.
“I had my best finish last year with great conditions,” he said. “I played okay. I definitely feel like I can compete. When my game’s sharp I can compete there. Especially with the putter. I’m going to hit fairways and I’m going to hit greens. If my putter can get where it needs to be ... that’s really what it boils down to.”