Zach Johnson won the John Deere Classic with a bunker shot to remember

July 18, 2012

It was perhaps the Shot of the Year by perhaps the Player of the Year. And it was struck by the no-doubt-about-it Board Member of the Year.

After Zach Johnson, who has been on the board of directors of the John Deere Classic for the last three years, won the Deere in a two-hole playoff over Troy Matteson, tournament chairman Clair Peterson could only say, “Most successful board member ever.”

No argument there. You won’t see many better shots under pressure than the six-iron Johnson struck from the left fairway bunker at the 18th on the second hole of the playoff at TPC Deere Run. It was a stroke of genius that rivals Bubba Watson’s shot from the pine straw in this year’s Masters. Looking into the glare of the afternoon sun, Johnson couldn’t see his ball run to within two inches of the hole, but he could hear the roars of the fans, so he knew the shot was exceptional. CBS ­reporter David Feherty gave him a colorful description of the ­result. “I won’t repeat what Feherty said,” Johnson said, “but he said it was close.”

The remarkable shot capped a wild final round. Johnson, a 36-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about 90 minutes from the Quad Cities, appeared to have the tournament won when he birdied the 17th hole to take a two-shot lead. Then Matteson, the leader after each of the first three rounds, holed a 60-footer for eagle on the same hole to tie for the lead. On the first hole of the playoff, Matteson pitched out of the right trees and into a water hazard. Johnson’s shot from the left fairway bunker bounced on the bank near the green before also finding the water, and each player made a double-bogey 6. Back to the 18th tee. Johnson drove into the same bunker, but his approach was markedly better.

It’s time to give Johnson his due. He is a Masters winner (2007), and this year only Tiger Woods has more victories than Johnson’s two (Colonial). He also finished second at the Players and the Heritage. This is his third multi­victory year since ’07 and his eighth win since then. Only Woods (21), Phil Mickelson (11) and Steve Stricker (9) have more. The fact is, Johnson is quietly playing his way into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He has nine career wins, including the major, and the Deere victory most likely sewed up a spot on his third Ryder Cup team.

Johnson won without his regular caddie, Damon Green, on the bag. Green took the week off to play in the U.S. Senior Open, in which he finished 17th. Mike Bender, Johnson’s coach, replaced Green at the Deere, and the hierarchy of the player-caddie relationship was estab­lished from the start. After the opening round, Johnson was asked to assess Bender’s performance. “Mike was awesome,” he said. “He made two bogeys, I made five birdies.”

On Sunday evening, they were both still smiling.