Will success spoil the Tiger of Iowa?

Tuesday June 12th, 2007
Johnson (with Kim) was introduced to friends and fans by Iowa's governor.
Andrew Hancock

When Tiger Woods failed to jar his approach shot on the 72nd hole of this year's Masters, Zach Johnson won the tournament while sitting in front of a TV in the clubhouse. At the sight of Woods's ball falling harmlessly onto the green, Johnson dropped his head onto the shoulder of his longtime agent, Brad Buffoni, and they shared a little hug. Then, with a surge of nervous energy, Johnson popped out of his chair. "What do I do now?" he asked, to no one in particular.

Luckily, Augusta National's general manager, Jim Armstrong, was hovering nearby. He briskly talked Johnson through the evening's schedule, a precisely choreographed series of ceremonies, interviews and celebrations. While they spoke Johnson drifted over to his locker, pulling out the slightly frayed pair of running shoes that he had worn to the course. "Keep the golf shoes on," Armstrong told him, politely but firmly.

Johnson, 31, certainly needed the counsel. The Masters has long been the private playpen of golf's aristocracy. As Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson combined to win five of the six previous green jackets, they had become well-attuned to the Masters's Sunday-night rituals, as did their sprawling entourages. Before conquering Augusta National, Johnson was a very good player quietly amassing a nice resume. Nothing could have prepared him, or those around him, for the intensity of the overnight stardom that he slipped into along with his new blazer. "I feel that I played some pretty decent golf for four days, and then my life got turned upside down," Johnson says. After a pause, he is careful to add, "But in a good way."

Winning a first major championship is life-altering for any golfer, but Johnson picked a particularly fraught time for his breakthrough, given that he and his wife, Kim, had welcomed their first child, Will, just three months earlier and that Zach is in the final year of all his endorsement contracts, making him the hottest free agent this side of Cameron Diaz. Corporate commodity and beleaguered dad are just two of the roles Johnson has played in the frenzied two months since the Masters. Among the others? Media darling, occasional talk-radio punch line and aw-shucks local-boy-made-good. What do I do now? Johnson is still figuring out the answer to that first, instinctive question.

Six weeks after the Masters, Johnson won his third career tournament, the AT&T Classic, looking at ease during a taut final round and a sudden-death playoff. After giving him a congratulatory hug, Kim asked, "Are you trying to kill me?" When he called Buffoni following the win, Zach's first words were, "I'm sorry."

\n\nThese remarks were made in jest-sort of-an acknowledgement that life was crazy enough before the victory at the AT&T firmly established Johnson as a trendy pick to win the U.S. Open, where the skinny fairways and perilous greens and suffocating pressure should play to his strengths. The victory also added that much more buzz to Zach Johnson Day, a statewide celebration in his native Iowa that by a turn of good fortune was scheduled for four days after the AT&T.

On a drizzly day in Des Moines hundreds of fans packed the soaring, spectacular rotunda within the capitol. Zach Johnson Day began with a promise from Governor Chet Culver's press secretary: Everyone in attendance who wanted a picture with the Masters champ would be accommodated in the governor's office. Wearing a beautifully tailored dark suit and a perma-grin, Johnson met his public with endless good cheer. Old faces from Johnson's past appeared unexpectedly: a high school coach, teammates from Drake (which is in Des Moines), a mini-tour roommate. These men offered a living, breathing history of Johnson's unlikely career path, and at one point between snapshots he mumbled, "This is as surreal as anything I've ever experienced."

It took nearly an hour for all the fans to be obliged, and then the speeches and proclamations began. Governor Culver hailed Johnson for his "class, dignity and humility. Even at his greatest moment he remembered his family and his faith. He represents Iowa at its best."

In conversation Johnson is pleasantly sarcastic and something of a know-it-all who's always game for a debate, but his halting speech made it clear that he was overwhelmed by the moment. "This is a day I will never forget," Johnson told the crowd, confiding afterward that his knees were still shaking.

Following the festivities there was an intimate reception at Drake hosted by the president of the university, David Maxwell. Drake was the only Division I school to offer Johnson a scholarship, and he was a favorite son even before he gave the school $100,000 of his Ryder Cup charitable stipend in 2006.

Mingling with the crowd, Johnson was most excited to see his former teammate Eric Boehlert, now a lawyer in Des Moines. It had been six years since they last crossed paths. "Zach and I used to have putting contests, and we'd say, 'This is to win the Masters,'" Boehlert said. "I guess he took it literally."

Some of Boehlert's favorite memories of the old days are from the spring-training road trip the team took every March to Galveston, Texas, to get away from the snowdrifts in Des Moines. It was 22 hours each way in a crowded, pungent van, with much of the time being passed in cutthroat card games. "Zach is a cold-blooded killer at gin and cribbage," says Boehlert. On one of these trips the team crossed paths with Fred Couples, who posed for a picture. In it Zach has a bad flattop and looks as if he's about 12 years old. Years ago Boehlert tracked down Couples, who signed the photo, "To Eric, all the best." At the Drake reception he presented it to another Masters champ, and with a grin Johnson scrawled, "All my best too!"\n\n

After a press conference at Drake it was time for Johnson to return to his boyhood home, a two-hour drive through endless cornfields. "Wake me when we get to Cedar Rapids," Johnson said. "I've got some sleep to catch up on."

The whirlwind began the morning after the Masters, when Johnson and his comically small entourage-his wife and his agent-jetted from Augusta to New York City so the new Masters champ could schmooze with Letterman, Regis and Kelly, and other portals to mainstream America. As exciting as the trip to the big city may have been, it was also nerve-racking for Zach and Kim, as it marked their first night apart from Will.

From New York the Johnsons made their way to Hilton Head, S.C., where Zach honored his commitment to tee it up at the Verizon Heritage. With some admirably determined play, Johnson was tied for fifth heading into the final round, four strokes off the lead. On Sunday morning Kim gave her husband a short pep talk: "Just go take care of it now. Go show people it's not a fluke."

This was a nod to some of the chatter that had accompanied Johnson's unexpected Masters win. Throughout his career Johnson has been celebrated as a gritty overachiever, but in the wake of Augusta he was now being lumped with Rich Beem, Michael Campbell, Todd Hamilton and Shaun Micheel, all of whom won their first major championship in the 21st century and haven't won a thing since. The Johnsons-particularly Kim-had also been miffed by SI columnist Rick Reilly, who said on Dan Patrick's ESPN radio show that he wouldn't be surprised if in 10 years Johnson were waiting tables at Olive Garden. A few more months in the spotlight and Johnson and his family will learn to shrug off this stuff, but they're not there yet. With an even-par final round at Hilton Head, Johnson didn't nab another victory, but his tie for sixth was a very solid way to back up his Masters performance.

He took the next two weeks off, but they were not exactly restful, including as they did a two-day trip to Chicago to tape a segment for The Oprah Winfrey Show. "There're certain offers you have to entertain, but to be honest, I don't particularly care for all the limelight," Johnson says. "I feel a lot more comfortable on the golf course. I've done some of these things because it's a nice opportunity to represent myself and my family and my sponsors, but that stuff is really not me."

The magnitude of the Masters victory was finally quantified for Johnson during his off weeks. Buffoni presented him with dozens of media requests and innumerable pleas for personal appearances that included everything from waving the checkered flag at a dirt-bike race to dropping the puck at a minor league hockey game. (He couldn't resist an invite to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame during a Cubs game, which he will do in September.)

\n\n"Zach has resonated on so many different levels," says Buffoni. "With other players people might feel intimidated or that they've got no chance to get him to say yes, but not with him." Simply going through the mail consumes hours of Johnson's time. "There are bags piled up in every place people can think of," says Buffoni. "My office, the PGA Tour, [with] his parents, Kim's parents, his coach Mike Bender, Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids, you name it."

One thing Johnson didn't find much time for was working on his game. In those two weeks off he hit balls only once, and the rust showed during his first tournament back, the Wachovia Championship, in which he shot 75-75-80 over the final three rounds to finish last among those who made the cut. The shaky performance was a reminder of how corrosive all the distractions could be, and it helped him refocus on the little things that have made him a big-time player.

Late last year Johnson convened a two-day summit with Bender, his longtime caddie Damon Green and sports psychologist Morris Pickens so they could figure out how to take his game to the next level. They pored over ShotLink stats and had long, candid conversations. They decided Johnson had to improve his wedge play, and the ensuing hard work paid off at the Masters, at which Johnson laid up on every par-5 but still played them in 11 under for the week. (Click here to read Johnson's tips and see exclusive videos of his drills.) They also created a routine to mellow out Johnson. Says Pickens, "Zach is such an intense competitor, such a high-energy guy, the challenge is to get him to slow down and relax. Tempo is not only in your swing; it's how you walk, how you warm up, how you practice." Throughout the Masters, Johnson's entourage was cheered to see him strolling with Green rather than charging ahead, as he often did when playing well in the past.

At the Wachovia and the ensuing week's Players Championship, Johnson discovered that he was having to run a gantlet to get from the parking lot to the locker room, the locker room to the driving range, the range to the practice green. "Zach was used to quietly going about his business," says Pickens. "It was a huge adjustment, having so many people want a piece of him. He was feeling a little harried, like he was always late and had to rush through his routine. He was taking that onto the course." By the time of the AT&T, the week after the Players, Johnson had begun to adapt to his new reality, and his la-di-da insouciance returned. "Just watching him walk to his ball, I knew he was going to have a good week," says Pickens.

Make that a great week. The victory was gratifying on many levels. Afterward, Buffoni asked for Rick Reilly's address, so he could send him a gift certificate to Olive Garden.

During a recent discussion about one of his sponsors, Dunning Golf, Johnson broke in to ask his agent, "Hey, is that contract up this year? We should make it where if you or my dad or brother or whoever needs a rain jacket or anything else, you could call up and get it sent to you. That'd be cool."

Suggest to Johnson that procuring this kind of swag would probably not be difficult for the reigning Masters champ, and he says, "Yeah, maybe, but it would be good to put it in writing."

It is instructive that Johnson is not clear on the particulars of his endorsement deals (or his juice). For many players, winning the Masters in a year when all their corporate contracts are set to expire would constitute a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza, and many would eagerly plaster themselves with enough logos to cover a NASCAR ride. Johnson, though, is reluctant to mess with what have become winning relationships. "Why would I want to change anything?" he says. "The equipment I have, the companies that have supported me, everything's working. It's gotten me this far. I simply want to keep doing what I'm doing."

\n\nSince the Masters, Johnson has received big-money offers to play in Germany, England, China, South Korea and Japan, but, says Buffoni, he's turned them all down. "I don't need much to keep me happy," Johnson says. "I like good food and tennis shoes. I like skiing. Am I frugal? That's a nice way to put it." He's been driving the same BMW M3 since his rookie year, and for his one big post-Masters extravagance he is considering upgrading to a new M5, though he blames this frill on Will. "Hey, I've got a kid now," he says. "I need four doors."

Kim also helps ensure that Zach's tastes remain relatively modest. When they met, in the parking lot of the Orlando apartment complex where they both lived, she had recently graduated with a degree in criminology from Stetson and had taken a job with the Orlando police department, designing and implementing crime-prevention programs in low-income neighborhoods. She knows more about the real world than the average Tour wife, and she's all too happy to keep her husband grounded in it. That entails busting Zach's chops, a pastime enjoyed by his close friends and his immediate family.

A few years ago Johnson was the victim of a classic April's Fools' Day joke in which Kim, Green, and Green's wife and father-in-law were all conspirators. For the ruse a copy of the front page of The Des Moines Register was painstakingly re-created with a phony story about the ongoing renovation of the Drake football stadium. The article reported that retired Walgreens CEO Daniel Jorndt was donating $5 million toward the project, which was true, but the made-up caveat was that he would cough up the money only if the field was renamed after Johnson. Zach's father was quoted as saying, "Why not? He's the Tiger Woods of Iowa." (That catchphrase remains popular in the family.) The masterstroke was that the story quoted militant local activists who threatened to picket if the field was renamed for Johnson. Green's wife works at Golf Channel, lending her an air of authenticity as she e-mailed the doctored version of the Register to Johnson.

"He started freaking out," says Kim. "He was pacing around muttering, 'I can't believe no one even asked me.' He called poor Brad and started yelling at him. Then in the middle of all that he got kind of excited and was like, 'You know, I'm probably going to have to show up for some kind of ribbon-cutting!' Then he freaked out some more. He was so upset I finally had to tell him it was a joke."

Says Zach, "I was just happy there weren't going to be any protesters."

Recently Johnson's mother, Julie, was asked for driving directions to Elmcrest Country Club. "You make a left at Oakland Avenue," she said, "go a few blocks, make a right turn on-I don't know the name of the street, but on the corner this guy has a large statue of a pig on his front lawn. So make a right at the pig, then go left at, well, it's funny, but at Zach Johnson Drive."

It's not a football field, but freshly christened Zach Johnson Drive stretches for two blocks, dead-ending into the Elmcrest parking lot, a place that Johnson will always call home, even though he now resides in Lake Mary, Fla. "We've had many conversations about how he's announced on the 1st tee," says Kim of Zach's insistence on being associated with Cedar Rapids. "He's very appreciative of where he comes from, and it's important to him to honor that."

If you go through Elmcrest's front entrance and down the main hall, you can't miss the shrine to Johnson's career. A wall-mounted television plays loops of the Masters and the '06 Ryder Cup as well as precious footage from Johnson's amateur days and mini-tour career. A display case houses such treasures as his first set of clubs (Hogan Jr. Radials), a Regis High team photo, the trophy that came with winning the 1993 Elmcrest boys' club championship and a clock that Johnson earned with his victory at the 2001 Greater Cedar Rapids Open.

\n\n"We completed this the week before the Masters," says Larry Gladson, Elmcrest's longtime head pro. "I told Zach, 'There's room in here for a green jacket.' It was kind of a joke."

Now Gladson is fretting about having to make space for a U.S. Open trophy. Though in three previous tries Johnson has never finished better than 48th, he's the archetype of the Open grinder. He is currently third on Tour in driving accuracy (73.3%), and as he proved at Augusta, he has no fear of fast greens. Though he is trying to downplay the cresting hype, Johnson does allow that "I'm definitely more excited for Oakmont than I've ever been for a major."

Assuming he recovers from the strep throat that caused him to withdraw from the Memorial, Johnson will visit Oakmont this week to have his first look at the course. Tiger and Phil make headlines every time they buzz into town to scout a venue, but Johnson has quietly been doing this kind of reconnaissance for years. "I've always put a lot of emphasis on the majors," he says. "I simply hadn't come through until recently."

Having already exceeded so many expectations-though not his own-Johnson says, "I don't know what the future holds for me, and I like that. I need to keep trusting in what I'm doing and see where it takes me. I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm ready for it."

He's certainly not afraid of continued success. "Winning the Masters has been a crazy experience," Johnson says. With an eye on the season's second major, the Hawkeye hero adds, "I hope to go through it all over again in a couple of weeks."

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