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Cedar Rapids, Iowa is still buzzing about how Zach Johnson went from local boy to boy wonder

Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Zach Johnson may be normal, but he's no longer average.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the hometown of defending Masters champion Zach Johnson, is not small in the Mellencamp sense. Its 125,000 residents make it the second largest city in the state, and you'd be miles outside the city limits before you saw even a hint of the rustic scenes immortalized by the painter Grant Wood, a Cedar Rapids native.

It is a place in transition, where old factories like the smoke-spewing Quaker Oats plant coexist with a spate of upstart tech companies, and where chains like Applebee's have made room for chic eateries with names like Blend.

When a local boy makes good, however, word spreads as it would in a one-stoplight town. So too does pride, of which Johnson is quite literally a towering source.

Out by the airport, a billboard welcomes visitors with a picture of a fist-pumping Johnson. North of downtown, the road to Johnson's training ground, Elmcrest Country Club, is now Zach Johnson Drive. And if Johnson walked into Moose McDuffy's diner and sports bar on April 10 (Zach Johnson Day, by mayoral proclamation), he'd have a hard time paying for a cup of coffee.

"He was the talk of the town after he won, and rightfully so," says Tom Haddy, the Moose's former owner. "He won the biggie."

Which caught even Johnson's family by surprise. "I don't remember anybody thinking he had a chance, including me," says Dave Johnson, Zach's father.

And this was on the morning of the final round, when his boy was just two off the lead. "I was just thinking, 'OK, let's get a top 10 and some Presidents Cup points.'"

Larry Gladson, the head pro at Elmcrest and Johnson's swing coach through college, never envisioned Johnson in the green jacket, either.

"The Masters?" Gladson says. "The thought of Zach playing pro golf never entered my mind."

Call it Midwestern pragmatism or plain dumbfounded-ness, but among those who know Johnson, there's a consistency to the astonishment at what he accomplished.

Jamie Bermel, Johnson's coach at Drake University in Des Moines, says, "To come from the No. 3 player on the Drake team to Masters champion — I ... I don't know how to put it into words."

Johnson's longtime friend Brian Rupp is a financial analyst in town, and played ahead of Johnson on their high school golf team. "Sometimes I see guys from that team, and we just shake our heads," Rupp says.

A meeting room in an office building just off Interstate 380 is filled with Elmcrest members who sponsored Johnson for six years on the mini-tours. Most of them never thought he'd survive the Prairie Golf Tour.

"Did any of you ever think we'd get our money back?" Cal Ernst says. "I didn't."

But if they can't believe what Johnson has accomplished, they always believed in him.

"I had a dream," Johnson says today, "and they grabbed hold of that dream and helped push it along."

Long shots occasionally manage to prevail at the other three majors (see: Steve Jones, Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel), but the winners' circle at Augusta National is almost exclusively the domain of the elite. All but one Masters title between 1993 and 2006 belong to multiple-major winners. There's been little breathing room for feel-good stories, especially ones starring a humble, hardworking kid from the heartland.

"There are not a lot of professional athletes from around here," says Mike Winker, the activities director at Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, Johnson's alma mater. "Yet Zach had the inner faith to go for that dream. I wonder how he had the belief in himself to keep going."

Zachary Harris Johnson was the first of three children, two boys and a girl, born to Dave and Julie Johnson, who Zach calls his "heroes." Dave, tall, trim and stern, is a chiropractor. Julie is a religion teacher. All three Johnson kids were athletic, but Zach was obsessed both with playing sports (basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, card games — after golf) and watching them (he can talk University of Iowa football until he's black and gold in the face).

He had a proud streak, too. Benched during a football game in junior high, Zach snuck off at halftime and sullied his pants to conceal that he hadn't played.

"It looked like he had played eight quarters," his friend Rupp recalls, laughing.

Off the field, Winker says, Zach was a favorite among teachers, "a 'Yes, sir,' 'Thank you,' 'Please' kind of guy."

As a high school freshman, Johnson stood just 5 feet and weighed 95 pounds. But his stature didn't inhibit him on the golf course, where he was a fast learner from the time he first picked up a club at age 10. Most kids his age were much longer off the tee, which forced him to rely on his accuracy and short game.

"He didn't hit the ball more than 220, but it was straight down the middle, and he never missed a putt," says Jason Vanderhorn, who played on the golf team with Zach at Regis High School (Regis later became Xavier). "If a putt was inside 10 feet, it was going in."

What distinguished young Zach was his ability to be at once fiercely competitive and eerily calm, even in defeat. During his senior year at Regis, Johnson's heavily favored golf team finished second in the state championship. The other team members were distraught, says Carol Trueg, then the Regis golf coach, "but it just kind of rolled off Zach's back. Not that he didn't care, but he knew how to let it go."

Brad Buffoni, Johnson's agent, recalls his client at a Nationwide Tour event in Chicago getting wired up for a stress test that measured how quickly a person could get his heart rate under control.

"They had to test him two or three times because they thought they were getting incorrect readings," Buffoni says. "He broke all the records."

Don't be fooled by Johnson's peaceful disposition. Anybody who's seen him at a Ping-Pong table (just ask Tiger or Phil) or on a basketball court will tell you he's a ferocious opponent. During an intramural basketball game at Drake, when Johnson was draining shots from all over the court, an opposing player shoved him to the floor at the end of the half. Johnson bounced back up, got in his grill, and yelled, "What was that!?"

"The guy was close to twice his size, and I just thought, 'Wow, there's some competitive fire there,'" recalls Brent Steele, Johnson's roommate at Drake and a teammate on the golf team.

Johnson also had resilience. While warming up for a 36-hole college tournament in Kansas, he had a wicked case of the shanks. "Any other kid would've shot 90, it was that bad," recalls his coach Jamie Bermel, now the golf coach at Colorado State.

Instead, Johnson fired a cool 72-71.

"He said to me after the round, 'I started making some putts and everything fell into place,'" Bermel says. "He was just never afraid."

Johnson will have you believe he's just a normal guy from Cedar Rapids. On an overcast January morning at Heathrow Country Club, north of Orlando, minutes from where he lives with his wife Kim and their toddler son, Will, the Masters champion is seated at a corner table in the men's card room looking, well, positively normal in an untucked golf shirt, black gym shorts and running shoes. His dark, thinning hair is disheveled. When he smiles large dimples pock his cheeks.

"Why am I normal?" he says, shifting in his chair. "I'm down-to-earth, family-oriented." His voice trails off. He tries again. "I am normal because I wasn't the No. 1 player on my high school team, I wasn't the No. 1 player on my college team. I wasn't an All-American. I was decent, pretty average, and average sometimes is normal. Actually, average sometimes can be a good thing."

What Johnson means is that "he had to work to keep getting better," says Mo Pickens, Johnson's sports psychologist. "And, in general, players who have to work to get better, who don't have everything given to them, they keep that work ethic."

Work ethic aside, Johnson's old pal Brian Rupp was stunned when Johnson told him that he wanted to pursue pro golf after college. (Johnson's parents were flat-out upset.) Rupp was the No. 1 golfer at the University of Iowa at the time and felt Johnson was hardly PGA Tour material. "There were guys out there I knew or played against who I would have expected to make it before Zach," Rupp says. "But I could see how passionate he was."

The long odds didn't worry Johnson, but the living and travel expenses of playing the mini-tours did. To focus squarely on his game, he needed help.

That's when a group of Elmcrest members — today known as the "Zach Pack" — funded a win-win arrangement for Johnson.

"None of us were in this to make money," says Flip Klinger, an attorney and one of the original nine sponsors, who are like a posse of your favorite uncles. "It was, 'Let the kid follow his dream.'"

Johnson "sold" shares of himself for $500 (the partnership offered little upside for the sponsors) and from 1998 to 2003 the group committed $150,000, relieving Johnson of any major financial stress.

Johnson, at 22, launched his pro career on the now-defunct Prairie Golf Tour, which held tournaments in places like Winfield, Kan. He won once in his rookie year, and finished sixth on the money list, netting a whopping $7,014.

He won twice more the next season, but took a bath when he upgraded to the Nationwide Tour in 2000. He finished 174th on the money list and packed his bags for the Hooters Tour.

"That was actually a good year," Johnson says. "I learned what I needed to do to get better."

Part of that education came from Florida-based teaching pro Mike Bender (a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher) who helped Johnson flatten his swing plane and hinge his wrists earlier.

The result: more fairways, more greens. Johnson's game improved immediately. He won the final three tournaments of the 2001 Hooters Tour season, carding a 66 or better in eight of those 12 rounds.

"That's when I knew he had a special gift," Bender says.

Bender was also struck by Johnson's discipline, his ability to recognize what shots he could and couldn't execute. Look no further than last year's Masters, where Johnson laid up on each of the four par-5s in all four rounds, resulting in 11 birdies.

Says Pickens, the psychologist: "A lot of guys don't know their games well enough to stick to a plan like that. That's what separates Zach."

In 2003, Johnson took Player of the Year honors on the Nationwide Tour, and a year later became just the second PGA Tour rookie to pocket $2 million, thanks in part to his win at the BellSouth Classic, his 13th Tour start. Still, nobody paid much attention to the unassuming Iowan, not even when he made seven birdies in his four-ball victory with Scott Verplank at the 2006 Ryder Cup, one of the few highlights for the woeful U.S. side.

"There was pressure on every shot," Johnson recalls. "That proved I could do some really good stuff on large stages."

Cue the 2007 Masters. With 18 holes to play, and with Stuart Appleby, Tiger Woods and Justin Rose ahead of him, "Zach Who?" was mere scoreboard filler to casual golf fans. But then, dramatically, his stars aligned: Cold air on the weekend had made the fairways firmer (a boon to shorter hitters) and the greens faster (how Johnson likes them); Johnson played with his close friend Vaughn Taylor, a comforting presence; and Woods made just one birdie.

It also happened to be Easter. Irrelevant? Not to Johnson, a devout Christian. "I think God had a plan for me," he says, "and I was just following it."

Of course, there was one other thing: Johnson played magnificently, wedging the course into submission and posting a 69 on a day when the scoring average exceeded 74.

"Everybody was amazed by how calm he was, but that's just kind of the guy he is," says Steele, Johnson's college buddy, who watched the telecast from his Kansas home, "physically ill" from the tension.

Also watching, in Cedar Rapids, was Sharon Cook, a waitress at Moose McDuffy's. "Golf for me is like watching grass grow," Cook says. "But my girlfriend said, 'Sit down and watch. We're not going anywhere.' Everybody was really stoked."

For good reason. Johnson was Iowa's first major champion since Jack Fleck won the 1955 U.S. Open, and he is intensely loyal to his roots. Though now a Florida resident, Johnson is announced at Tour events as hailing from Cedar Rapids. His charity, Birdies That Care, has raised $400,000 for area nonprofit organizations. And his primary sponsor, the financial services company Aegon, is based in Cedar Rapids.

All of which has understandably delighted the locals. As Mike Hlas, a sportswriter for the town paper, The Gazette, wrote in the wake of Johnson's Masters win: "We Iowans like the validation when one of us hits it big and tells the world he comes from a good place."

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