The Open: Why you didn’t back Zach Johnson (but should have)July, 2015
Five reasons we didn't consider the new Open champion
Other than Jordan Spieth much of the talk at the start of the week was of Johnson but not Zachary Harris Johnson. The 39-year-old is, by his own admission, an under-the-radar type of player and he doesn’t bomb it 290 yards through the air.
But he is now a two-time Major champion despite the variety of reasons very few of us added him to our betting selections.
1) He doesn’t hit it long enough
The Old Course was green and soft and would play into the hands of the big hitters. When the more fancied Johnson, Dustin, led after the first and second round plenty assumed that would be that.
Zach Johnson is one of the shorter hitters on the PGA Tour and is ranked 164th for distance. But you can easily prosper on the Old Course, with the wind at your back, particularly when you are accurate with the driver – Johnson was 3rd on the driving accuracy stats, hitting 55/64 fairways.
After his opening 66 he said: “I think there was a time when I thought you had to kill it. You had to hit it 290 in the air and hit it left essentially every hole. Granted, that still holds true to a degree.
“But you don’t. I mean, I got a lot of loft in my hands, especially on the holes that have some sort of help. My first 11 holes, I didn’t hit much more than an 8-iron. On the par 5 I’m hitting 5-iron up there, and that’s kind of fun for Zach Johnson.”
2) He lacks the flair to be an Open champion
Johnson is a fairways and greens merchant, he doesn’t take unnecessary risks or bend the ball this way and that like Bubba.
But he is meticulous and is more often than not highly consistent – in the past nine seasons he has finished in the top 20 of the Money List seven times.
Johnson’s biggest and best win came at the 2007 Masters where he famously laid up on all the par 5s but still managed to play them in 11 under.
It is widely thought that this was his game plan at the start of the week, it wasn’t. It was based on a strategy that was laid out where four specifics had to be ticked off if he was going to take on the green.
For Johnson to attempt to reach a par 5 in two, he had to a) have a 3-iron or less in his hands b) the ball had to be sitting well and on a level lie and c) the pin had to be in a favourable position.
That week in April 2007, they never were.
As his mind coach Dr Mo Pickens explains: “When we looked at the stats it was clear that his wedges were holding him back; his par-5 scoring average was 183rd… There were only 144 players teeing it up each week so [Johnson] was worse than some of the part-timers.”
That winter Johnson took to practicing his wedge play for a minimum of 30 hours a week in order to master trajectory, distance and spin control. “He went from a very good player to an elite player,” says Pickens.
3) He played the week before
Despite Jordan Spieth pretty much not putting a foot wrong this year there were howls of outrage at him playing in the John Deere Classic.
Finishing late on a Sunday night (where he would win) and then arriving into St Andrews on the Monday afternoon was ludicrous given this was a Major.
Johnson also played at TPC Deere Run where he was tied for third.
“I love the John Deere Classic and I love this tournament. They just so happen to be in back-to-back weeks right now. The charter helps. I’ve got to tip my cap to the folks there because I’ve got a routine now when I get here on Monday and I stick to it.”
"I like Muirfield, Turnberry, Birkdale, Lytham. I guess you could even say Carnoustie to a degree. Gosh, they’re all so good" 4) He doesn’t love the Open, does he?
Johnson is your typical American and, as such, doesn’t ‘get it’. He hasn’t grown up playing a collection of amateur events at places like Hillside or Nairn or Formby and there is nothing to go on other than his Open appearances.
But he does get it and he loves it. He doesn’t just come over because it’s a Major and go through the motions after he fails to get into contention.
Johnson missed his first three cuts and has made every weekend since 2007. At Lytham and Muirfield in the last few years he has recorded top 10s.
“The more and more I play it, the more and more I realise what it requires and demands out of me. I cracked my driver face right before I teed off on Thursday in 2005 at St Andrews, so I didn’t have a driver that week. I still managed to make the cut, but I wasn’t on the proper side of the wind wave.
“This is my favourite tournament consistently year in, year out, and if I’m going to rank the venues I’m not going to put this one No. 1. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just the ones ahead of it I phenomenally love. I like it. I like it a lot. Like Muirfield, Turnberry, Birkdale, Lytham, those stand out to me. I guess you could even say Carnoustie to a degree. Gosh, they’re all so good. I just love this kind of golf.”
5) He’s not a winner
Wrong. Johnson has 12 PGA Tour wins, the same number as Steve Stricker, Paul Azinger and Justin Leonard and more than the likes of Adam Scott (11) or Sergio Garcia (8).
And he loves a play-off – this was his fourth success in five times going to extra holes.
He has won every season since the 2007 Masters, other than 2011, but the majority of his wins, like his golf, might not have come at the more ‘sexy’ events.
Until now. Now he is just the sixth player to win at Augusta and St Andrews – the others are Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods.