Zach Johnson doesn't hit 300-yard drives, or light up press conferences with his candor. He's just a normal guy from Iowa. No wonder no one saw him coming
When Zach Johnson missed the cut by a shot at the 2006 PGA Championship, he thought he'd blown his chance at making the U.S. Ryder Cup team. That night, before joining his family for dinner, he sat in a restaurant parking lot trying to muster the resolve to exit the car. Johnson was miserable. (He made the team anyway and was a rare bright spot.)
Fast forward to 2007, when Johnson was the last man on the practice green after shooting a third-round 76 at frigid Augusta National. His caddie wanted to go home, but Johnson insisted that they stay, that he was going to win the bleep-bleep tournament. They stayed. He won.
In January this year, having failed to birdie an easy par-5 at the Mercedes Championship, Johnson hopped into an SUV for the short ride to the next tee and furiously slammed the door. "My goodness," said a startled spectator. "I thought he was a nice Iowa boy!" Johnson won the Sony Open the following week.
Not even Tiger wants it more than Zach, which is partly why Johnson has won six times, way more than most predicted for the former No. 3 golfer at Drake University in Iowa and self-described "normal guy." Normal? Try telling that to his opponents.
If someone had said to you 10 years ago, 'Zach, in a decade, you'll be a six-time Tour winner, with a green jacket,' what would you have said to him?
I wouldn't have believed him. Ten years ago, 1999, I was playing the mini tours. I probably would have said, "What are you on?" Before that, I was a very average college golfer [at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa]. I won two tournaments, and one of them had only four teams. It was Division I, but I was without question not our No. 1 player.
What's the No. 1 Drake player doing now?
He left golf about a year ago. He's one of my best friends. He's working in Des Moines and getting his masters degree. The No. 2 player is also one of my best friends. He still plays amateur golf.
You have the same number of wins as Fred Couples did at age 32, and you're on roughly the same pace as Jim Furyk. How many tournaments do you think you're capable of winning?
I have no idea, and that's the beauty of it. I never thought I'd get to six, and I have no idea if I'm going to get more. It seems like our sport's getting younger. What's fueling me right now is to try to win more. You could say six wins. You could say 20. I don't have any idea.
So you feel your career is ahead of schedule?
Yes, ahead of where I thought it would be. Some people thought I'd be on the PGA Tour, that I'd win tournaments, play in majors, contend in majors, win majors. I thought they were crazy.
Who said that?
My wife, first of all, and my coach. They thought I'd be playing at the highest level. I dreamed about it, but I never thought I'd get to this point this early.
Did winning the 2007 Masters take the pressure off or put pressure on, making you want to prove that it wasn't a fluke?
I think it was more the latter. Others can say whatever they want, but I wanted to make sure it wasn't just one lucky week.
The night before the last round of that Masters, you were the last man on the practice green. It had been a long, cold day, and you hadn't played very well.
Seventy-six. I think I moved up five spots. It was one of those routine things. I didn't want to hit balls after the round because it was so cold. We have a game that we play on the putting green, so that was just to stay in the routine of the week.
And your caddie, Damon Green, wanted to go. But you said something to the effect of, 'We're staying here, and I'm winning this bleep-bleep tournament.' Then you turned around and realized you weren't alone, that someone was watching you. It turned out to be the son of the chairman!
Oh, really? I didn't know that! I don't remember doing that, but obviously it's true.
You apologized. Were you embarrassed that you were caught cussing?
Yeah, I mean that's the kind of thing I don't particularly like in me. That's the competitive nature in me, where I just got done with a grueling test of a day, I'm exhausted, it's freezing cold, but I know that I'm still in position to win this golf tournament or remain in contention on Sunday. I know that regardless of how I feel or how my caddie feels, I've got to stay in my routine, stay in my process, if I'm going to have a good day on Sunday.
Anything about that day you look back on and laugh about?
I tend to get overly anxious and fast, so Mo [Johnson's mental-game coach Morris Pickens] and I have worked on really slowing my walk down during the round. I remember walking off the ninth green and having to go to the bathroom so bad, and I go over there to 10 and hit my tee shot, and walk back to the bathroom right by the clubhouse. Then I walk back out to the fairway and my shot. I don't jog or trot. I'm playing fine. I've just shot a 1-under on the front nine, and I remember thinking, I'm playing fine. Just stay in this rhythm, stay in this walk. We talk about "staying in our walk."
A lot is said about the Ryder Cup instilling mental toughness. Do you win that Masters without having played in the heat of the 2006 Ryder Cup, where you made seven birdies in one four-ball match against Padraig Harrington and Henrik Stenson?
I doubt it, actually. But for me it started the day before [that match] — it was Chad Campbell and I in alternate shot, and Chad played great, and I wasn't playing very good. We're 2-down going into the last three holes. He hits a good tee shot on 16, and now I'm at that yardage where, do I go for it, do I lay up? The green is extremely narrow and not very receptive to 3-woods. I remember Captain [Tom] Lehman was there, Damon was there, Chad was there. Damon was like, "Dude, we're 2-down with three holes to go. We've got to go." I was not very confident until I stood behind it. I gathered myself, picked my target, went through my routine, hit it perfect, and we two-putted for the win. Then I made a putt on 17, which turned out to halve the hole, because they made another 15-footer on top of me. Then I hit another 3-wood onto the 18th green and we two-putted to win the hole and halve the match. Chad hit a beautiful drive, and this 3-wood, even though there was water on the left, was a lot easier than the one on 16. And I made a 3-foot putt to win. After that week I'd played in every arena, and to win a major — I didn't think it would be Augusta, but it was.
How much did your endorsements jump after that Masters victory?
[Laughs.] Well, substantially, although I would assume they were a market-value jump. We were in a contract period, and we were scheduled to renew them in the fall and winter of '07. Whatever I had relationship-wise prior to Augusta is still the same. If anything has changed, we've added things, we haven't subtracted. There's no reason to change.
Nick Faldo used to cut his nails on a certain day every week. How routine oriented are you?
I'm not that into it. I have no superstitions. I don't have to have a Sunday outfit. I don't have socks or underwear I have to wear. The only thing that is of the utmost importance is a ball mark my wife gave me that I've had since 2003. It looks like a dime but it's a little bit bigger. And it's got engravings on it. On one side it says "One shot at a time" and on the other it says "Trust your line," and there are scripture verses underneath it.
Have you won all six times on Tour with that ball mark?
Oh, yeah. I have not played a PGA Tour round without it.
After winning the Masters, you described yourself as a 'normal guy' from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. How do you see your brand today? And how do you suppose golf fans see you?
I don't know if I have a brand. I just see myself as an athlete and a competitor, someone who just works really hard at trying to get better at golf. I guess I'm kind of the feel-good story who's seen every level of professional golf. I've done the mini tours, I've lived out of the trunk of my car, I've paid $1,500 a week just to play in a golf tournament.
You lived out of a car?
No, I mean I went from hotel to hotel, but all my stuff was in my car. So I've seen all that. What do fans see? I don't know. I hope they see exactly that. I'm kind of a grinder. I'm a Cinderella, an underdog story who fights.
Are you at all concerned about being too vanilla? Or is being the normal guy from Iowa good enough for you?
That's more than enough. I hear other people say, "You've got to have more charisma." I don't know how to do that. I can't fake my job. I can't fake what I'm trying to do out there.
Can you think of a player on Tour who gets more out of his ability than you do?
Oh, man. That's a really good question. Are we talking about individuals that to the eye — and probably even in some statistical category — don't match up to the prototype? The guy who comes to mind right away is Corey Pavin. What he's done compared to what he's been given is unbelievable. His short game is unbelievable. Fred Funk is another guy. We're talking about guys who are modest hitters, who don't wow you with their ballstriking, but get it done. I'd even throw Jim Furyk in there.
As one of the littlest kids in school, you had to stand up for yourself a lot, especially on the basketball court. How did that shape you?
Sports formed me. I was always decently skilled, but lacked size, so I had to resort to using my skill versus my power. I strategically play golf because that's all I can do. It's the same on the basketball court. I try to get open and shoot it. Or I use the open space on the soccer field.
You ski, too, right?
Yeah, I love to ski. Stewart [Cink] calls me "Double-Black Zach," but Ben Crane coined it. I was once more fearless, but not anymore.
'Irritating' is a word that's come up for your determination and the effect it has on your opponents. Do you revel in getting into players' heads?
If they think that, that's fine. I mean, just think about all of us that are thinking about Tiger. He's so good you expect him to win. Now that fuels my fire. You can't compare me to Tiger, but if people are irritated at my nature and what I'm doing out there, great.
Observers have said you'd be a more consistent threat at the majors if you had more length. Is that a fair point? And if you could add one thing to your game, would it be distance off the tee?
Yes. The majors become more difficult every year, with more par-4s over 500 yards, and a par-4 longer than a par-5. It seems like these organizations want to control score, which I don't appreciate, but that's the way it is. Ten to 20 more yards would be huge. You're talking about getting higher-lofted clubs in my hands to difficult greens. That'd be so nice.
Could you possibly add 15 yards?
I hope so. And if I'm adding 15, I hope no one else is. I've worked out really hard. I'm trying to increase flexibility and strength. I've had talks with Mike [Bender, his swing coach], it's just going to be difficult. A lot of it has to do with how I swing the club. It's very much on plane, which leads to a straight shot, but it also has to do with my grip. It's all about clubhead speed, and my clubhead speed is not very high for two reasons. One, I'm not as strong as a lot of guys, and two, there's not that whipping effect through the ball because of my grip. It's so strong.
In what way are you vain?
I like to look good on the golf course.
You've worn some very red pants.
Well, you know, my manufacturer likes to have those things kind of stand out. But at the  U.S. Open I wore red pants, white shirt, blue hat — red, white and blue for the U.S. Open. And they didn't even tell me to.
Is it true you had to stop taking Rogaine so as not to run afoul of the Tour's drug-testing?
Yes, but it was Propecia, and it was in Europe. On our list it was okay. It was leading up to the British Open, and if I was to get tested at the British, they said it potentially masks other agents. I don't know if that's still the case, but I'm still taking it and I have been since '01.
Does it work?
Well, it's helped eliminate more hair loss, yes.
What would you be doing if golf hadn't worked out?
Gosh, I don't know. I had options. I would have gone back to school, which I really didn't want to do, or I'd be sitting behind a [desk at a] pro shop, still wondering if I can make it.
Now that you have made it, what would you like your legacy to be?
Golf is not my priority. I would hope people see me as a Christian man who loved his family, who loved being in the heat of competition and sometimes succeeded at it; who understood that golf was his job and that he was very lucky to play it for a living.