Zach Johnson returns the claret jug; now, he wants it back
TROON, Scotland (AP) Zach Johnson faced the inevitable rite that goes with being a British Open champion.
After 51 weeks in possession of the claret jug, it was time to let it go Monday.
''Not pleasant,'' he said, managing a weak smile.
Now, Johnson wants to get it back.
After winning a three-man playoff at St. Andrews last summer, the 40-year-old American arrived at Royal Troon looking for any motivational edge he could find.
His sports psychologist, Morris Pickens, suggested that Johnson focus on the painful ritual of returning the cherished silver prize to the Royal & Ancient. If it was tough giving up the jug, imagine how sweet it would be to claim it for another year.
''Use it as a positive, find motivation there, find it as an opportunity,'' the golfer said.
Johnson hasn't won a tournament since his triumph at the birthplace of golf, but he has hardly dropped off the map. The two-time major champion reached the Tour Championship last fall, led the triumphant U.S. team at the Presidents Cup, and has five top-10 finishes in 2016.
He certainly has plenty of passion for the sport's oldest major championship.
''My love for it was immense and immediate,'' Johnson said. ''It's my favorite to play. I mean, I just appreciate it. I love it. I think I've embraced it. You have to. I mean, the conditions are what they are.''
Players got an idea of the challenge they're likely to face during Monday's practice round. A stiff breeze whipped across the seaside course in western Scotland. Dark, gray clouds lingered overhead, doling out an occasional smattering of showers just to make things a bit more unpleasant.
Bring it on, said Johnson.
Growing up in Iowa, he learned to play in conditions that weren't always pristine. And given his diminutive stature – he's generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 164 pounds – he's never been one of those guys who can simply overpower a course with his booming shots. He'd rather rely on a wide variety of shots, get a chance to show off his entire repertoire.
''A mudder,'' he said. ''I'm not saying it defines me, but I think I fall into that category. I mud it out, yeah. That's all I know. Maybe it's where I grew up, in the sense that the weather's not always terrific in Iowa.''
Indeed, his first major title came in bitterly cold conditions at the 2007 Masters.
''Maybe,'' Johnson went on, ''it's something that's just innately in me. I enjoy and love embracing difficult, challenging conditions. It's just something that I consider part of my talent, if that makes sense.''
Before leaving his home on Georgia's St. Simons Island, Johnson, his wife Kim and their three young children all posed with the claret jug one last time, each of them showing off their best pouty faces on Twitter.
That said, Johnson sure got the most out of his limited time with the trophy. One of his favorites was a ceremony on the 50-yard line at Kinnick Stadium, home of the University of Iowa football team. He showed it off plenty in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, both at the foundation that bears his name and the club where he grew up learning the game. Other stops are marked by stickers plastered on the outside of the jug's protective case, including Old Rip Van Winkle, a bourbon distillery in Kentucky, and Fox Bros., a famed barbecue joint in Atlanta.
''Just seeing family and friends and sponsors and fans of golf embrace it has been pretty awesome,'' he said. ''The thing has a lot of weight to it, in the sense that it represents golf and sports as far as I'm concerned.''
Once he arrived in Scotland, Johnson spent one more night enjoying the jug with several of his best friends.
''We had a glass of wine out of it,'' he said, before correcting himself. ''Well, we didn't have a glass of wine, we had wine out of it. It is a claret decanter, so it serves its purpose in that regard.''
He'd like to get a bit more use out of it, that's for sure.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .