Zach Johnson put on a short-game clinic at Kapalua’s Plantation Course to capture his third victory in four months on Monday at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Similar to what we saw at last month’s World Challenge, where he took down Tiger Woods in a playoff, Johnson’s precision with his wedges helped him on his way to a final-round, seven-under 66.
Johnson led by three at the halfway mark, but he slipped back down after a 74 on Sunday. Then, he re-took his place atop the leaderboard on the 14th when he pitched it to eight feet and rolled in the putt for birdie. He followed it up with two more excellent wedges on nos. 15 and 16 that also led to birdies and he coolly parred the last two to finish at 19-under, edging out 20-year-old Jordan Spieth by a shot.
Everybody needs to learn to appreciate his wedge game.
“Everyone knows he’s a great driver and a great putter, but they’re starting to learn about his wedges,” said his longtime caddie Damon Green when asked for the most under-appreciated part of Johnson’s game. “That was the first thing I said when we got together the first year, I said, you’re never going to be long, so you’ve gotta do something else better than everybody else…Now he’s got them dialed in pretty good.”
Zach has seemingly been underrated in general for quite a while, despite his 2007 Masters win, not to mention his now 11 victories on the PGA Tour. He doesn’t mind being the underdog, though. In fact, it’s a moniker he’s comfortable with.
“I’ve always liked the stories, I’ve always liked the teams and the individuals that are kind of coming from behind, that are not supposed to win,” said Johnson in his post-round press conference. “Those always intrigued me in sports. Competition intrigues me more than anything. But the competitive aspects of sport that really drive me are those situations where Wichita State makes the (NCAA) Final Four, you know? George Mason and Butler almost wins a national title. I love that kind of stuff. I’m not a fan of them, but you catch my drift. I love seeing the underdogs.
“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. I didn’t like putting myself in a two-shot deficit posture, but sometimes that’s the way it works.”
Cue for me to play one of my favorite songs:
Now that Johnson has won three times in the last four months, does this change his status? He’s working on it.
“Currently I am,” he said, referring to channeling Goliath instead of David. “I still have that vision, yeah. I guess part of it is that I feel like granted, we’re talking about two tournaments. The last two tournaments where I beat 17 guys and 29 guys, so little perspective there too. Not full-field events or full-field tournaments. But also come the creme de la creme so to speak too.
“So I definitely feel like I’ve put myself in a place that this is a little foreign to me. You know, some of the numbers I’m not exactly comfortable with or have never been to, meaning top 10 in the world, that kind of thing. But I’m also a realist. I know this game at some point could beat me up again. So I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing. Try to keep things very simple.
“I don’t want to cluster my golf game even though I’m playing great. Now there’s going to be, and you guys know, there are going to be more media requests for me in the next couple weeks, and that’s fine. I can deal with that. I dealt with that in ’07, I dealt with it in ’10, and ’11, I can deal with it. So those peripherals, I’m used to. But winning a lot of golf tournaments in a row or multiple times in a four-month stretch, I’m not that accustomed to yet. I hope I can get more accustomed to it. I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal, like I said because I’m going to try to keep things as simple as possible.
“It seems to me the best players in the world that I’ve witnessed and watched, they don’t play as much as I have in the past, but when they get to the golf course, they do the same exact thing, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m going to try to keep doing what I’m doing.”
(I know it’s a long answer, but I liked it.)
Believe it or not, since Johnson joined the PGA Tour in 2004, only Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have won more often. Kind of crazy to think about, huh? But of course, his caddie isn’t surprised even though his guy isn’t exactly always the favorite.
“Zach plays the boring golf, he’s not flashy,” he said. “He just does his job and he does it very well.”
And Johnson has more than just willpower or determination.
“I’d like to say he has something else other than his heart,” described Green. “Something anatomically down there. He’s got the biggest pair out here — (Zach) and Tiger, I think. He’s not afraid to be in the lead, he thrives on it. A lot of guys don’t like to be in the lead; they can’t stomach it, but (Zach’s) got a chest-iron stomach.”
Even though eight of his 11 wins have been come-from-behind, he gets the job done when needed.
“I like fighting back,” said Johnson. “I like trying to fight to get to that win. I think the main reason is because there are so many good players out here. So even though I might be playing as good as everybody else or potentially even better, it’s just hard. I mean, a bump here and a roll there, that’s what this game is all about.
“But I’m comfortable there. I don’t mind having to do that. I hope there is an opportunity where I have a significant shot lead that I can maintain at some point, because that hasn’t happened very often. I think my first win I had a lead, and I think I only won by a shot. So the one thing my wife continues to say is why can’t you just make it easier on us?
“Sorry, Honey, but it’s just hard. There are too many good players out here.
“I had a 3-shot lead going into 18 at Colonial. Is that my second time I won, I think? Yeah, second time I won. But I had a ball marker mishap, so I barely snuck that one out too. Just little things like that I’ve got to try to alleviate.”
Ah, yes, the ball marker mishap.
Congrats to Zach and Damon!
Meanwhile, Spieth played with at least a share of the final-round lead for the first time in his brief yet successful career so far. He came up just short, but he didn’t go down without a fight.
On the par-5 15th, Spieth had 252 yards on his second shot and hit what he thought was a perfect hybrid, yelling, “Yes!” right after he finished his swing. A few seconds later, his ball came up maybe a yard of being perfect and rolled down the hill about 40 yards.
“It’s a tough tee shot,” he said. “It’s a scary tee shot for me because those are the kind of holes where I’ve led them astray in the past couple events. So each round I just pulled it a little bit and left myself with the ball below my feet and kind of a tough shot.
“Today I had 252 front edge adjusted for ten yards uphill. I took out a hybrid. I was going to hit 3-wood, and Michael and I both decided that with some adrenaline and straight downwind my hybrid, if I get it up in the air flies 240 on a normal day. So downwind, that should fly to the front edge.
“When I hit it, I yelled yes. I mean, it was exactly what I wanted. I hammered one. It didn’t quite get high enough, I knew that. But it must have been going 200 miles an hour. I mean, I hit it hard. I figured I hit a 3-wood, I think it was the second round. Same thing happened where it hit the bank and came down. That one I was sure it was there. If it wasn’t, it was on the fringe up on the green.
“I thought I had a putt. I was very surprised. I asked the guy, where is it? He said it came all the way down the hill. I knew it was in a good position there even though I was so shocked it didn’t quite get up. I didn’t see the one a couple days ago or today. I don’t know how close it was to climbing up to the top of the hill. You guys may know. Pretty close? So, that’s how it is.
“Then I had a pretty easy shot. Honestly, it was down grain. No excuses. Down grain on the chip shot. That’s a very basic shot for me. Actually a lot easier than the shot I hit on 9, and 9 went to a foot. I just needed to get it up in the air, fly it on the front half of the green, and it would take a hop next to the hole, and I decelerated on it. Just not a great shot. I just didn’t play it long enough. That’s just what it came down to there.”
Spieth won’t let this close call get to him, though.
“I won’t kill myself with that,” he said when asked if there was a shot he could take back. “Other than 15 with the pitch shot, that was really the shot today that I felt was really the only bad shot, the only bad shot that I hit all day. Give it a couple more yards and I’ve got to putt for eagle and who knows what happens there. I may not have even had it. But that was I’m not going to kill myself looking back. I made a great par save, and then I could look at some putts here and there.
“But these greens did a great job placing the pins on the side hills where the grain goes the other way, because I misread my first ten putts today. I mean, I was close. I hit good putts, and then when you see that many miss, you start doubting a little bit and start getting tension in the hands and that’s what happened.”
The future is bright, my friends.
Jason Dufner was in the mix until a poor shot that found the hazard on the 17th hole, leading to a double-bogey. He might have been more concerned about his alma mater, Auburn University, taking on Florida State in the BCS Championship Game.
“A little bit here and there,” said Dufner when asked if it crossed his mind. “I was trying to get a win for them today. It didn’t quite work out, but it’s tough. You’re invested in a program like that and you’re close to these guys, definitely the mind wanders a touch. But I think I was pretty focused for the most part.”
As he bounced back with a birdie on the 18th, I ran into his wife Amanda and asked her who she was rooting for.
“I don’t know yet,” she said. “Everyone keeps asking me and I haven’t decided.”
When I joked about how her husband would probably be very intense about the game, she laughed and said the night before Jason said she might have to leave the room. Don’t worry, Duf-daddy wouldn’t do that to her (I mean, have you ever seen Amanda??).
“She won’t have to leave the room,” he said, smiling. “We’ll be pretty locked in. After what they went through last year, I spent a lot of time with the guys there in Auburn. I feel where they were at last year and where they are now is a pretty amazing story. Probably the most amazing story in sports right now.
“If you were around the team and what was going on last year, it wasn’t anything to be proud of, and where they’re at now, I’m really proud of those guys and the coaching staff.”