Lusetich: Zach Johnson is a David grown bigger than Goliaths
After losing by a shot in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Monday, Jordan Spieth — who at 20 is just clearing his throat for what promises to be a star turn on the PGA Tour — was asked which two players younger than 40 had more than 10 wins.
Tiger Woods, obviously.
Was the other Adam Scott? Dustin Johnson? Sergio Garcia? Matt Kuchar? Justin Rose?
None of the above.
Would Spieth have guessed Zach Johnson, the perennial underdog who’d just wedged him to death at Kapalua, was the other?
“No, probably not,” he replied.
And it’s about time that Johnson’s awesomeness was acknowledged.
Just as Spieth was a can’t-miss prospect out of Texas, 15 years ago the scrawny Johnson was a can’t-make prospect out of Drake University. He drove a Dodge Intrepid around the mini-tours, chasing dreams that weren’t as big as his life now.
“This is more than I would’ve thought,” the 37-year-old Midwesterner said after winning for the 11th time on the PGA Tour.
“I don’t have dreams of that caliber.”
Johnson, who won the 2007 Masters by famously never trying to hit a par 5 in two shots, relying on a wedge, a putter and guts, has spent his career as David in a world of Goliaths.
His playing partners routinely bomb it by him and hit all kinds of fancy shots with the kind of textbook aesthetic swings that are the antithesis of Johnson’s homemade, shut clubface, hold-on bullet draws.
But he doesn’t let any of it bother him.
He just plays his game.
And his game, it turns out, is good. Very good.
“You can learn a lot from watching him play,” Webb Simpson said.
“He’s really tough. He doesn’t make mistakes.”
Johnson will tell you that he can’t afford to make mistakes, that he needs to be as good from 100 yards as his bigger, stronger, longer-hitting rivals are from 100 feet.
“I just picked it apart,” he said of his final round 7-under par 66 at Kapaula.
“I didn’t deviate away from anything that I typically do on the golf course. It’s fairways and greens for me. I’m trying to give myself an aggressive look and trusting what I’m doing. Remaining patient was the big thing.”
He’s used that image of the grinder — the underdog — throughout his 10-year career on the tour for inspiration.
“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,” he said on Monday. “Those always intrigued me in sports.
"The competitive aspects of sport that really drive me are those situations where Wichita State makes the final four, you know? George Mason and Butler almost win a national title. I love that kind of stuff.
“I love seeing the underdogs. I’m not saying I’m always an underdog, but I kind of feel like it.”
The thing is, he’s going to have to work hard to convince himself that he’s still the one with the sling.
The giants can’t seem all that big to Johnson any more.
Since his rookie year in 2004, only Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have won more times than Johnson.
Johnson has won three times in his last six starts, including going toe-to-toe with Woods — and prevailing in a playoff — at the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge last month, and entrenched himself in the world top 10.
“I definitely feel like I’ve put myself in a place that this is a little foreign to me,” he said of his recent success.
“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.”
Johnson’s longtime caddie, Damon Green — an accomplished player in his own right — told golf.com that his boss makes up for whatever deficiencies he may have in size and strength in other ways.
"I’d like to say he has something other than heart," he said. “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."