KAPALUA, Hawaii — For a while there, Zach Johnson was the most underrated player in golf. But then so many folks were declaring him to be underrated he was on the verge of becoming overrated. But after slaying Tiger Woods in an unforgettable playoff last month and then pulling out a taut victory on Monday at the Tournament of Champions it is time to trumpet Johnson for what he is: quite simply one of the best players in golf, and maybe its most tenacious competitor. In this era of nuclear drivers and atomic balls, the 5'10", 160 lb. Johnson gets it done the old-fashioned way, with precise ballstriking and a short-game for the ages. But his greatest attributes are anatomical. "I'd like to say he has something other than heart," says Johnson's caddie Damon Green. "He's got the biggest pair out here. Him and Tiger, I think. He's not afraid of being in the lead, he thrives on it. A lot of guys don't like being in the lead, they can't stomach it. But he's got a cast-iron stomach. Man, he's solid."
That's what you learn as a pipsqueak holding your own in team sports. Johnson was a starting wide receiver on his seventh-grade football team, despite weighing less than 90 pounds. As a 100 lb. high school sophomore he led his golf team to the state championship, and as a senior he was a 120-pound, all-city right wing in soccer. Oh, and while at Drake, he won a campus-wide three-point shooting contest, canning 19 of 25 from beyond the arc.
"He's one of those irritating guys who is good at everything he does," says his wife Kim.
From the very beginning of his pro career Johnson has been perfecting the art of winning. On the micro-mini Prairie Golf Tour in 2000 he won twice and finished third on the money list. He moved up to the Hooters Tour and in 2001 ended the season with a three-tournament winning streak that propelled him to the top of the money list, earning the nickname "Back-to-back-to-back Zach." In '03 he tore up the Nationwide Tour, winning twice and setting records for scoring average (68.97) and money ($494,882), thus earning his spot on the PGA Tour the following season. In the ninth start of his rookie year he won the BellSouth Classic and, for staying so true to his small-town roots, the pride of Cedar Rapids, Iowa received congratulatory notes from his first-, second-, third- and fourth-grade teachers. Ten more Tour victories have followed, most notably the 2007 Masters, when he held off Woods in the final round and conquered some of the most brutal conditions in major championship history.
Johnson's heavy mettle was on display during the second round of the Tournament of Champions, when he was paired with mad bomber Dustin Johnson, the defending champ, who can reach all of the Plantation Course's par-5s and drive three of its par-4s. Yet Zach matched him shot-for-shot as both posted 66s. In a nod to his power disadvantage, Zach said," I would say I'm up by three gross and up by eight or nine net."
And yet Johnson is more than halfway to the Hall of Fame; among active Tour players only Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Davis Love and Jim Furyk have more career victories. Still, Johnson finds it useful to cling to his role as a small fry. "I've always liked the stories [of] the teams and the individuals that are kind of coming from behind, that are not supposed to win," he said in his champion's press conference. "Those always intrigued me in sports. I'm not saying I'm always an underdog, but I kind of feel like it. If anything, I put myself in that posture where I feel like I'm an underdog. "
That would explain why he wasn't too distraught after a scratchy third-round 74 left him two strokes out of the lead shared by Dustin Johnson, wunderkind Jordan Spieth and Webb Simpson, who was playing his heart out to honor his caddie Paul Tesori, who was back on the mainland watching over his newborn son Isiah, who was in the NICU after a harrowing delivery. During the final round a chip-in on the second hole got Z. Johnson off to a flying start, and birdies on five and seven had him roaring up the leaderboard. A kick-in birdie on the 12th hole gave him a piece of the lead and then he put the hammer down, reeling off three straight birdies beginning at 14 to scoot home with a 66. (In his last ten final rounds, including the victory over Woods at the World Challenge, Johnson is -38.)
One by one the other contenders frittered away their opportunities. Spieth, playing in the final twosome, was the last one standing but ultimately couldn't catch a player who refused to make a mistake. Spieth didn't make a bogey but wobbled a bit on the back nine, notably a missed five-footer on the 14th hole, a pitch that rolled back to his feet on the par-5 15th hole and the seven-footer he missed on the 16th hole. With typical candor, he said afterward, "I got nervous out there." But it was another valuable lesson for the 20-year-old reigning rookie of the year, whose solo second place was worth $665,000 and priceless Ryder Cup points. "It was a great experience, sleeping on the lead and battling on the back nine," he said. "It was fun to have that pressure, it was fun to have that adrenaline rush. The key thing was that I was very patient today. It was better than in the past when I was in contention. That was my focus for today. I just didn't execute on the greens. I under-read a few putts, but that's okay. I can correct that."
Following his victory, Johnson, 37, ruminated on all the knowledge he has accrued during some memorable final round dogfights: "What I've learned from the times that I haven't come through is that I didn't do what I had done to get into contention. So, in other words, just keep doing what you're doing. Try not to make the shot any more or less relevant than the next or the previous one. The back nine today was not any different than my back nine [during the first round]. I felt very natural, felt very comfortable. I felt at peace out there. There was nothing more than just hitting shots. It felt great."
Johnson spent most of his week in Maui talking about how comfortable he felt, which led Green to crack, "Beating Tiger Woods makes you feel a little more comfortable, I would think."
Johnson's recent hot streak has propelled him into the top 10 of the World Ranking but he will have no trouble maintaining his perspective. Three young kids will do that. When Zach met Kim, in the parking lot of the Orlando apartment complex where they both lived, she had recently graduated with a criminology major from Stetson University, and after a stint in AmeriCorps, taken a job with the Orlando police department, designing and implementing crime prevention programs in low-income neighborhoods. She knows more about the real world than the average Tour wife, and she's all too happy to keep her husband grounded in it. In fact, busting Zach's chops is a pastime enjoyed by all of his close friends and immediate family. Years ago he was the victim of a classic April's Fools joke in which Kim, Green and Zach's father-in-law were all conspirators. For the ruse a copy of the front page of the Des Moines Register was painstakingly recreated with a phony story about a renovation of the Drake football stadium. The article reported that retired Walgreens CEO Dan Jordnt was donating $5 million toward the project, which was true, but the made-up caveat was that he would cough up the money only if the field was renamed after Johnson. Zach's father was quoted as saying, "Why not? He's the Tiger Woods of Iowa." (That catchphrase remains popular in the family to this day.) The masterstroke was that in the story, militant local activists were quoted threatening to picket if the field was renamed for Johnson.
"He started freaking out," says Kim. "He was pacing around muttering, 'I can't believe no one even asked me.' He called [his agent] and started yelling at him. Then in the middle of all that he got kind of excited and was like, 'You know, I'm probably going to have to show up for some kind of ribbon-cutting!' Then he freaked out some more. He was so upset I finally had to tell him it was a joke."
Says Zach, "I was just happy there weren't going to be any protesters."
No, there's nothing remotely controversial about the Tiger Woods of Iowa. That is, as long as you don't call him underrated.