DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Asked to describe himself shortly after his Masters victory Sunday, Zach Johnson said, “I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it. I’m a normal guy.”
That helped steal the heart of the state.
Iowans were beaming like proud parents on Monday.
“He’s like an Iowa kid. Kind of naive, very humble, and just a cool guy,” said Ryan Hartman, Johnson’s former teammate at Drake University in Des Moines and one of his closest friends. “My wife, who is a big city girl, said it best. She said that he is the nicest, most genuine person she’s ever met.”
What makes Johnson’s victory all the more remarkable to those who know him best is that he hardly looked like Masters material growing up in eastern Iowa. Johnson was so small as a youngster that he joined the junior program at his parents’ golf club, Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids, four years after many of the boys had started playing.
After a strong but hardly remarkable stint at Cedar Rapids Regis High, Johnson showed up at Drake in 1994 as a 128-pound freshman who couldn’t drive the ball worth a lick.
But he could putt, and as Johnson’s slight frame grew, so did his overall game. He eventually became one of the better college golfers in the Midwest, but his former coach at Drake, Jamie Bermel, said he never saw anything to indicate that Johnson could one day top the world’s best at Augusta National.
“He wasn’t a very big kid,” said Bermel, currently the coach at Colorado State. “Real tough competitor. Just a solid player who got a little bigger – and kept getting better and better and better.”
Johnson joined the Prairie Golf Tour in 1998, and made a slow but steady progression through the minor league circuit. He earned his PGA Tour card after winning Nationwide Tour player of the year in 2003, and broke through with a win at the BellSouth Classic in 2004.
Mike Cigelman, Drake’s associate athletic director, said Johnson’s personality never changed as his paychecks grew. That was evident to him during a lunch Johnson had with the Drake golf team last year at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, site of the Nissan Open.
“He was the same guy a year ago that he was 10 years ago. He has an outstanding work ethic, yet he keeps things in perspective,” Cigelman said. “Everyone at Drake is incredibly excited and proud of him. His achievements are the talk of the day for every faculty and staff member I’ve encountered.”
Johnson is perhaps the unlikeliest Masters champion since Larry Mize in 1987, and joins baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller and former NFL MVP Kurt Warner atop a small list of Iowans who have excelled on pro sports’ biggest stages.
“It means a lot. Iowans take a lot of pride from fellow Iowans,” Johnson told ESPN on Monday. “I love going back. That’s where everything started. … I live in Florida now but going back to Iowa just feels great. I look forward to going back there with the green jacket.”
Hartman, echoing the sentiments of Johnson and many Iowans, said that in a state without a major pro sports team, Johnson’s win at the Masters is something all of Iowa can rally behind. It was true at Elmcrest, where members packed the lounge on Easter Sunday to watch TV, and for Hartman, whose phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from friends and former teammates.
Hartman sent a text message to his now-famous buddy late last night.
“I said, ‘Your life will never be the same. Great playing, and I’m still crying,”’ Hartman said. “He sent me something back this morning that said, ‘Luv ya. I’ll buy you some Kleenex.”’