Zach Johnson weighs 165 pounds. He’s not a bomber, yet in this long-ball era, he has 12 Tour wins, including the Masters and the British Open, and has piled up $37 million in earnings. If Johnson, 39, keeps winning, the World Golf Hall of Fame awaits. We met with the Iowa native in his hometown of Cedar Rapids to ask this question: How does Zach do it?
We’re here at your old home course, Elmcrest Country Club, on the renamed Zach Johnson Drive. How surreal is that?
Yeah, it’s a bit much. I mean, if we’re going to get real specific here, Zach Johnson Drive might only be 65 yards long, you know? [Laughs] Not too long ago, I had to have some stuff shipped to Elmcrest for an event my foundation was putting on, and I called the pro shop. I’m like, “Guys, forgive me, but it’s been so long. What’s the address?” And they’re like, “You’re joking, aren’t you?” And I said, “No, I have no idea.” And they’re like, “It’s One Zach Johnson Drive.”
You once described yourself as an average college player from Drake University. How has that “average” player gone on to have such an impressive career?
I was just late [in developing]—but I was late with everything. As a kid, I played every sport: tennis, basketball, soccer. Golf was a part of that equation, but it wasn’t the sole focus. In high school, professional sports were an aspiration, but I wouldn’t say that they were at the forefront of my dreams. They were just, you know, there. I wanted to play soccer and basketball at a high, high level, but those sports passed me by. And when they did, golf was still there. Golf picked me—that’s the way I’ve always said it. It was my outlet to compete on a playing field where I was more level with others. You know, in golf I didn’t have to be 6’2″, 185 pounds.
Did you consider non-golf careers?
I had the option, certainly, of going back to school, getting my master’s and getting into the business world. But I’m like, “You know what? I want no regrets. Competition is my outlet. It’s what fuels me.” I thought, if we can get some things in order—specifically, the finances and the support—then, you know, let’s give it a shot to make it as a professional. Once my sole focus was golf, that’s where the improvement came.
The story of your band of supporters and financial backers in Cedar Rapids is well known. A lot of guys feel immense pressure to pay that support back. Was that the case with you?
No, it really wasn’t. The individuals, the families, the companies—most of them were here at Elmcrest—saw a kid improving, and their goal was just to see how far he could go and to be a part of it. At least that’s what I felt from day one. There certainly was a financial risk—it was a stock-basis thing, and they bought shares. Over five, six years, I was able to pay them back, and then some. I can’t be more thankful to them.
It’s been said that a golfer needs something to play for. Do you think there’s something to that?
Sure. A number of factors are involved. The one that most comes to my mind in all this is that I’ve been given a gift, a God-given ability. And it’s my responsibility to utilize it to the best of my abilities. That means, obviously, providing for my family. That also means providing for others. And that means upholding the game to the standard it deserves. I think it also means not taking it as seriously as some, because it is just a game. Look, I’m human—I’m not perfect. I want to win, so I sometimes get caught up in it. But I’ve got to have my checks and balances. I’ve got to have my accountability.
You’d probably be the first to admit that you’ve made more with less: modest distance, modest clubhead speed, et cetera. Caddie Steve Williams has said you are the one player who can’t be beat mentally. Where does that discipline come from? And is it key to your success?
That was very nice of him to say, but don’t believe everything you read. [Laughs] Look, I’m not going to wow you with my game. It’s boring. But where golf demands the utmost—in situations of mental, emotional, and physical stress—it’s boring enough that I can rely on it. I really savor the moments when golf demands everything of me. I love coming back and winning. I love having the shot I need to hit and being in that position to have to execute on command. That’s why I practice, and I feel I can do it.
On Tour, is there a fair balance between events played on bomb-and-gouge courses and those on shorter, more tactical tracks?
I think there is. A lot of tracks have withstood the test of time and the boost in technology. What is frustrating—and a lot of my peers would say the same thing—is when those who are building golf courses or putting on tournaments feel that a course now has to be 7,500 to 8,000 yards long. That is the biggest farce in the game today. If you look at the average driving distance on the PGA Tour, and then compare that with the money list or FedEx Cup standings, you’ll find there’s not a whole lot of parallel there. Granted, Rory kills it, Bubba kills it. But there are only so many of those guys. And Rory and Bubba have phenomenal short games. If you break it down, driving distance is almost the most irrelevant stat week to week.
Does it frustrate you to be asked how you stay competitive as a shorter hitter?
No. I’ve embraced it. I don’t have much of a choice there. I don’t carry the ball more than about 270 yards. Guys out here who I’m playing against, when they tee it up, their 3-wood is my driver. They’ve got another gear that I don’t. What it comes down to is, I’ve got to hit more fairways, and my wedge game and putting have to be as good as most, or better. That’s where my focus will be.
Do you think greater distance would make a big difference for you?
No, I don’t, so I take that out of the equation. What’s the one thing that I’d really like to have? I’d like to be a better, more consistent putter. I’d like to have less fear on the green, like when I was a kid. As a kid, I just hit it, and it went in—a lot, especially from eight feet in. So I’d take fearless putting over anything. Look at Jordan Spieth. He’s not going to wow you with anything he does, but the mental side of his game—he’s extremely tough. And then his putting [is excellent], specifically from 20 feet and in. We don’t see that very often.
What can you tell us about Jordan?
As a professional athlete, as a guy who plays the same sport he does, it’s hard for me to grasp the maturity he has on the course at his age. And he had it when he was 19! I mean, he was top-tenning on the PGA Tour, it seemed like, when he was 18 or 19. He’s 22 now? I can’t comprehend that. He’s such a good kid. So his maturity on the course, I can’t fathom it. And his maturity off the golf course exceeds even that—his class, his integrity, et cetera, et cetera. I credit his parents. He’s got a great family. They did a really, really good job. And it’s refreshing to see.
Jordan took this year’s Masters, but you’ve had six top 10s in the majors since your win at Augusta in 2007. Where do you think you stand your best chance of winning a second one?
[Note: This interview was conducted two weeks before Johnson won the 2015 British Open.]
I need a course that favors my game off the tee—a course where hitting fairways is a premium—and favors my game on the greens. I can compete on any course, because if I play well, it’ll show. But the likelihood of winning—it’s just hard. Given all that, I’d say the Open Championship. I love it.
Why the British Open?
I love what it demands. It’s one of my favorite tournaments, and it’s the most fun to play. It’s just beautiful golf. So that one is high on my list. If I had never won a major and you said, “Pick the one you’d expect to win first,” it would not have been Augusta—but that would be the one I’d want to win. The Masters is a good one, and I would take another. [Laughs]
Let’s talk about the Ryder Cup. You took Team USA’s loss at Medinah, in 2012, pretty hard.
That was a rough defeat. And it still is rough.
Davis Love III is getting another chance as captain. As his friend, how motivating is that for you?
Motivation is not a problem with the Ryder Cup. Never has been, never will be. I’ve played on four teams and haven’t won one yet. Maybe that’s a sign. But motivation’s never lacking. I mean, I want to win it for my captain. And I certainly want to win it for my country and for the team. If I have the opportunity to be on the next team, I am going to relish it, because, competitively, it is the best thing I’ve ever been associated with.
What the heck has happened to the American team in the last 20 years?
We’ve just got to play better. I mean, has the European team gotten better? Probably. As a whole, top to bottom, I would say that our depth is usually one of our biggest assets. And in that tournament, we do rest a lot of people. But if that’s the reason we lose, you’d think we’d lose by half a point here or a point there. With the exception of Medinah, we’ve been getting shellacked. I don’t know what the recipe is, other than we have to play a little bit better. And I do know this: A win isn’t remotely as far off as people think.
You haven’t been on a winning Ryder Cup team, but the Presidents Cup teams have been very successful.
Maybe it’s because we don’t want it as much. The Ryder Cup has so much more weight to it. Although inside the ropes it seems like it’s almost as competitive, it’s not the same degree with the Presidents Cup. I mean, I have the jitters and nerves, and emotionally I’m still very involved because I love competition—I love what it demands. And I don’t want to lose. But the Presidents Cup doesn’t have the tradition and history of the Ryder Cup. And, rightfully so, the media makes the Ryder Cup a bigger deal.
We’ve talked about your mental toughness and belief in your gift. Which player in another sport most reminds you of yourself?
I like that question! Somebody that gets the most out of everything, and doesn’t back down—mentally, he just nails it. I’m trying to think of a football player or basketball player, but somebody who’s gone further with it is. . .Kurt Warner! Duh! He didn’t play till his fifth year in college, didn’t get drafted, was a free agent, goes to the arena league, works his way up, works at a grocery store, and he’s a tremendous person. He eventually gets his break, makes it, and takes it way further. Good night! He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame. And he’s from here—he went to my high school.
Football’s a rough sport. In general, do you have any injury fears about golf?
That’s why I work out. It’s not like I dwell on it. I’m not going to quit living, but one of my goals every year is longevity and injury prevention.
You turn 40 next year. Does that give you a certain perspective on what you’ve accomplished?
I don’t like to get caught up in the past. I certainly learn from it, good and bad. But I like to be more about right now. I’m getting to that age where I’m a veteran on the Tour, and these younger guys come to me and ask me questions, same as I used to do, you know?
You’re the wise old mentor now.
I guess, yes. [Laughs] I still feel like I’m 25. And today, with all these young, young guys, even 25 seems old on Tour. But that’s the beauty of our sport. I’ve still got players I can go to for counsel—Davis Love III, Jay Haas—who I feel get it right. Who I can learn from. If I can turn to those guys, then certainly the younger guys can turn to me.
But there’s no retirement timeline in place, right?
No. People ask me, “What do you want to do? Do you want to design courses?” I’m like, “I don’t have a clue.” I’m still playing. And I’m still thinking, What’s my next week? I want to win! And that’s how my team and I view it. I’m still in midcareer. Jim Furyk, what a model he is for someone like me, for a number of reasons. He’s still at it, still cracking on it every other week, and occasionally he gets the win. Retirement is something to look forward to, but I’m definitely not focusing on it yet.
With 17 Tour wins and a major to his name, Furyk is Hall of Fame-worthy. What do you think it would take to get into the Hall?
I’ve got to win more tournaments, and the only way I know how to do that is to try to improve every day. I don’t know the ins and outs of the Hall of Fame. I don’t know what’s required to get in. But I can tell you that right now that it’s the least of my concerns. If it happened at some point, it would be a phenomenal honor, but it is so not in the forefront of my mind. If there’s anything I aspire to—oh, I’m not going to go into it. It’s boring.
No, do tell!
Okay, okay. For me, the Payne Stewart Award [given annually by the PGA Tour since 2000] recognizes exactly what a professional golfer should be. I’ve been to multiple ceremonies, and I know the individuals that have received it—guys like Davis Love, David Toms and Tom Watson. It honors both on- and off-course accomplishments, and it looks at what an individual has done for the game, and what the game’s done for him. There are parallels to who Payne was as a person and as a man. He was one of my favorites, maybe the favorite. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him. I don’t know if the award gets the recognition it deserves, but the meaning of it—it would mean a lot to me.
It sounds like you’re saying that, absolutely, golf is important–but that what we do outside the game is a better measure of who we are. Is that a fair assessment?
One of my biggest fears is that my kids’ perception of me will be wrapped up in the game of golf. It’s my job, and it should be nothing more than that. It just so happens that a lot of people think my job is pretty cool. But my kids know me as their dad, not as a Tour player. It’s important that they put things in perspective and say, “You know, dad had something that was given to him—a pretty cool gift. He used it to the best of his abilities. He loved it. But it’s not his driving force in life.”