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

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

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Zach Johnson may be normal, but he's no longer average.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

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.”