By Jeff Hopper

Don’t call Zach Johnson a late bloomer. Among 2004’s stellar rookies on the PGA Tour, that title belongs to Todd Hamilton, the 37-year-old journeyman, who captured two trophies, including the British Open Championship.

Don’t call Johnson a surprise. That would be Andre Stolz’s billing, for few had heard of the Aussie before he captured the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas last fall.

Don’t call Johnson a charger. You must give that label to Ryan Palmer, who fired 62 in the final round at the Funai Classic and stole victory from Tom Lehman and Vijay Singh, among others.

So what do you call Zach Johnson?

He’s already been called the 2003 Nationwide Tour Player of the Year. Last spring, he earned his way to victory at the BellSouth Classic, so the folks around Atlanta are calling him champion of their hometown event.

But if Johnson were to pick a name for himself, it would probably be something far more humble, which suits a guy who says, “I was never the best player on my high school team, and I was pretty much the number two man on my college team.” Oh, and that college? It was Iowa’s Drake University, close to home in Cedar Rapids, but about as far away from college golf’s usual powerhouses as you’re going to get.

If Johnson were going to pick a name for himself, it would probably be as simple as this: learner.

It would be a fitting name, too.

When Johnson emerged from Drake in 1998, he knew he wasn’t going to be walking out on tour, like some of the young stars around him: Tiger Woods, say, or even Charles Howell III. No, Johnson had work to do. He had a lot still to learn. But that was fine with him.”With the support and help of some others, my family, coaches and friends,” he recalls, “I decided to give it a shot and devote all my work time to golf.”

The results weren’t spectacular, but they were promising.

“Things kept progressing. I was improving year in and year out,” he says. “I figured if I could just keep doing that, I’d have a chance at this. If I started to taper off, then I’d reconsider.”

The tapering never came. It took Johnson more than five years to get to the big Tour, but, he says, “in that time frame I’d learned a lot.”

No kidding.

In 2003, he went crazy on the Nationwide Tour. He made 19 of 20 cuts, including the last 17 in a row. He won twice and collected a record $494,882, an amount that would have made a lot of players on the big-money PGA Tour happy. In addition to the money title, Johnson finished first in scoring, first in putting average, and first in all-around statistics.

All of which led to the big prize: a full exemption on the PGA Tour for 2004. It’s always nice to see an athlete who has paid his dues get paid back.

But there was so much more to learn. After all, he had no assurances about how he would perform. His first year on the Nationwide Tour, he’d made just $2,000, and he’d been sent back to Q-school with the encouragement of his family but also some pretty serious doubts. Still, that was the year Johnson calls “the best of my career,” which is a high compliment when you consider what transpired in 2004.

This time, there wasn’t much struggle.

Sure, he had to wonder if he was out of his element when he missed the cut in his first tournament at the Sony Open in Hawaii, then found that 22-under was only good enough for a tie for 20th at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

But don’t try to derail Zach Johnson. He’s seen too much, learned too many lessons to be knocked off course by a couple of challenging weeks.

At the Hope, “I thought I’d played pretty good,” he says, “and I didn’t finish in the top 10. But really, I’m seeing the courses for the first time—that’s what I’m trying to tell myself. I don’t have to get worried about it. It’s one good week and I can build from it. I hadn’t seen these golf courses, one, and two, I think I’m two shots out of being tied for ninth. It was a good step in the right direction. I used it for motivation for the start of the year.”

Learner, teach thyself.

Actually, that has been the whole story of Johnson’s career, taking each step as a journey in itself, each tournament as a learning environment.

In Charlotte, three weeks after his win at the BellSouth, Johnson was still learning lessons. At the Wachovia Championship, a tournament high on Johnson’s list of favorites, he double bogeyed his last hole on Friday, missing the cut by one. “My approach shot into the green was one I knew I could hit, but looking back on it, percentagewise it was not the shot I should have hit.”

If you can, imagine him telling this story without a hint of remorse, because that is how he tells it.

“It was not a shot that was in my game at that moment. I should have played within myself rather than giving myself not enough credit.”

It turns out that bogey would have been good enough to make the cut. All Johnson had to do was punch out. Still, no regrets. Only lessons.”My caddie tries to take some of the blame for it, but I tell him that’s ridiculous, but that’s his own thing. I hit the shot. That was a huge learning experience.”

Cool Zach Johnson.

The same Zach Johnson who breezed his way to victory on the back nine at the TPC at Sugarloaf in April. Oh, the TV cameras didn’t show you that, nor the scoreboards. That’s because Johnson’s five-shot lead dropped to two when he bogeyed four of five holes down the stretch.

Ask him about it, and Johnson tries to play the part. “It was extremely nerve racking, especially after I started three-putting a few holes here and there.” But he can’t stay in this mode. “I really shouldn’t say that. It wasn’t that nerve racking, to be honest. It seemed like I teed off my ball on the first tee on Thursday and picked my ball out of the hole on Sunday, and the whole week just flowed.”

Truth be told, he did falter on that back nine, especially with his putter, which is often the sign of a player who is having trouble holding the lead. But Johnson was in his usual frame of mind—”whatever happens happens,” he calls it—and he ended the round with three pars to seal the one-shot win over Mark Hensby.

At the time, he told reporters the back nine was “a roller coaster.” But as a rider, Johnson managed to keep himself together with the help of routine, his caddie Damon Green, and two Scripture passages.

Johnson’s wife, Kim, had manufactured a personal ball mark for him. On one side she inscribed the words, “Trust your line,” accompanied by the notation Proverbs 3:5,6, which says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” Johnson would set that side up on the putting green and recite the proverbial words to himself.

The reverse side of the homemade mark helped shape Johnson’s mindset elsewhere on the course. The inscription was, “One shot at a time,” and the Scripture passage was Matthew 6:33-34: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough worry of its own.”

“Those verses kind of kept me at ease,” Johnson says. “I don’t know if I was communicating with God at the time I was playing, but I felt like I was closer with Him at the time than with anybody else.”

Closeness to God is something that has not always been there for Zach Johnson. He was raised to know Christ and actively participated in the family’s church. In fact, Johnson says, he did have a relationship with Jesus. His parents taught their children to take their faith seriously, and Johnson prayed trusting God. But many aspects of his faith were not mature enough to survive the first few years away from home.

“I loved my four years of college,” he says, looking back, “but that’s kind of when things went astray as far as my faith went. I call those my ‘blind years.’ I’d go to church with my parents, and it didn’t mean as much as it did before. There was not as much prayer in my life.”

In 2002, while living and playing his winter golf in Florida, Johnson met his wife, Kim. They lived in the same apartment complex.

“She was the one who brought me a long way back to where I was, but in a more adult mind frame. Before my faith had been more childish.

“She really guided me along,” Johnson says. “She didn’t push me or pressure me. She just got my mind thinking. She provoked it in a very good manner. That’s something I can never repay her for, but it was extremely wonderful.”

Still, while Johnson had started thinking about his faith more deeply, he hadn’t made any commitments. And even if he’d wanted to commit to Kim, she was hesitant.

“There was something in her heart that she could never marry a non-Christian man,” Johnson says.

But Johnson wasn’t sure this applied to him. “I always thought, You know, I’m a good guy, I believe in God. She can marry me. At that time I believed that all good people went to heaven, regardless.”

In a pre-marital class at Kim’s church in Orlando, however, the issue became clearer for Johnson. He needed to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“One night in particular during that class, I remember that questions were being asked and my mind was searching and wandering. Then I was talking with my mom on the phone, and suddenly everything kind of hits you in the forehead and you just kind of open your eyes. I didn’t think I was blind so much,” Johnson recalls.

Zach and Kim were married a few weeks before his 2003 Nationwide Tour campaign began. And everything since has been—you know by now—a learning experience.

The biggest lesson, Johnson says, is not to take his life for granted.

“I haven’t had any tragedy in my life,” he says. “My whole family’s healthy. So really He’s helping me to learn to appreciate what I have.”

That might seem like an easy lesson for a player whose rookie season on the PGA Tour saw him gain not only that first win at the 2004 BellSouth Classic but also more than $2 million in earnings.

But Johnson insists the lesson is bigger than that: “It’s realizing that what I have isn’t mine. It’s His.”

All those seasons of practice to get to where he is and now Johnson’s not staking a claim to what he’s got? That really is a lesson for a man still a year shy of 30.

But Johnson hasn’t learned these lessons alone. Kim has been there, holding him accountable. And she has been praying that men would enter Zach’s life who could hold him accountable as well. That prayer has been answered.

Johnson gives credit to his teacher Mike Bender, his agent Brad Buffoni, and other guys on Tour who have come alongside him, including Ben Crane, whose first win also came at the BellSouth, one year earlier. There have been others, leaders in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the tour Bible studies. “All these men welcomed me and encouraged me, and vice versa,” Johnson says.

It’s easy to get the impression that Zach Johnson is a hard worker who has gotten what he deserves. Through dedication and a steady demeanor, he has risen to the upper echelon of his profession—he and Hamilton were the only rookies who worked their way to the Tour Championship by finishing among the top 30 money winners at the end of last season.

But Johnson will tell you he’s still learning. It’s not always easy to balance the attitude you want to have with the pressure that professional sports can exert.

“I’m a highly competitive individual,” he says. “I’m able to shut things off away from the golf course, but when I’m on it, it’s pretty intense. I’m not sure I ever had a temper, but my emotions may get astray at times. Being able to put my emphasis on God and what really matters in life while I’m working on the golf course has helped me take the good and the bad together, especially the bad.”

It’s hard to imagine a lot of bad ahead for Johnson. Not on the golf course, anyway. But should it come, in golf or in life, Johnson seems ready for it. He has been so careful to learn his lessons.


  • Zach Johnson

    12 PGA Tour Wins (two majors): 2004 BellSouth Classic, 2007 Masters, 2007 AT&T Classic, 2008 Valero Texas Open, 2009 Sony Open in Hawaii, 2009 Valero Texas Open, 2010 Crowne Plaza Invitational, 2012 Crowne Plaza Invitational, 2012 John Deere Classic, 2013 BMW Championship, 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions, 2015 Open Championship

    Awards: 2003 Nationwide Tour Player of the Year