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Johnson turns career into booming business

KAPALUA, Hawaii – When he was a child growing up in Iowa, Zach Johnson couldn’t wait for the afternoon school bell to ring, knowing he’d soon be spilling out those brick doors and onto a soccer field, or onto a baseball diamond, or into some kind of basketball practice. No surprise, but he loved being part of a team, and he always was the kid who wanted the ball with the game on the line.

Some things never change. Johnson is back at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the eighth time, this time as defending champion, and he’s still the leader of a team – his own. In Orlando, Fla., last month, he held the ninth annual post-season meeting of Team Zach, going over everything from practice hours to training, from his every detailed on-course stat to his off-course financials and his motivation. The assembled “squad” included agent Brad Buffoni, swing coach Mike Bender, physio Troy Van Biezen, sports psychologist Mo Pickens, caddie Damon Green and financial adviser Zack Fulmer. Statistician Peter Sanders, who charts Johnson’s every round, joined via Skype. (Johnson’s wife, Kim, usually attends but did not make this meeting.) The team discussed what the golfer accomplished in 2014, reviewed goals that he had set (Johnson said he met seven of 12) and suggested ways that Johnson could improve his performance in 2015.

Johnson isn’t the first player on Tour to have his own entourage, but he’s pretty detailed about the process, having made the decision that Zach Johnson, Golfer, is actually no different than any other multimillion-dollar corporation. Better planning and analysis can lead to better results, and there’s no arguing that Johnson, who has won 11 times on the PGA Tour and amassed more than $33 million in career earnings, is the CEO of a thriving organization.

“I just feel like, you know what, this is my business and I know I’m the head of it, or my wife and I are the head of it, right?” Johnson said. “We need to have a bunch of people we trust and that trust us so we can attack this as such, because they’ve invested in it and I’m invested in it. And I’d say the motivation and goals are the same.”

Johnson enjoyed success on the developmental tours, but when he transitioned to the PGA Tour, he won only once in his first three seasons. At the end of 2006, he wanted to review where he stood, and decided to stage a meeting for those who had a hand in his career. So for the first meeting, he assembled Bender, Green and Pickens. Why do it? Truthfully, he felt he could use some assistance; why not let those closest to him grow in the investment?

“I mean, I just need help in all aspects,” he said. “I mean, whether it’s technical help, accountability, or just motivational help, I mean, I need it. So I was reluctant to add (psychologist) Dr. Mo back in 2006, but I wanted to give it a shot, and just kind of see. At that point, I’d won once. I was on the brink of being on my first Ryder Cup team, et cetera. And since that point it’s been pretty good.”

Very good. Ten victories good since ’06. Masters-champion-green-jacket good. He also was convinced the limited stretching and tissue work he did as a rookie would not be enough to get his body ready physically for the long run he wished to have on Tour. Physically, he was beaten up at the tail end of his first few years. He’ll be 39 next month, and he appears as fit as he’s ever been.

The focus for Johnson in ’15? He wants to improve his putting. He laughs at the notion that he carries a reputation as being one of the top putters on Tour.

“I don’t get that; I really don’t,” said Johnson, who ranked 79th in strokes-gained putting in 2013-14. (In 2012, he ranked eighth.) “I feel like I’m a decent putter sometimes. I feel that there’s times when I’m just … ‘Who are you?’ And, ‘You’re terrible.’ That’s what I feel.

“I don’t want to give too much away,” he said of the putting work that lies ahead. “You’ve got to make 8 feet and in, that goes without saying. You’ve got to two-putt from 40 feet and beyond. But there’s a certain area of distances where if you’re proficient, not only are you making cuts, but there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be in there (in contention) on Saturday and Sunday.”

It’s not easy to win on Tour these days. Johnson said in this current era, 20 victories would be a great career (among modern-day players, only Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III have reached or exceeded that mark) and “four or five” would be considered very good. “Just because it’s so hard,” Johnson said, “because of the depth of talent.”

Asked who impresses him on Tour these days in terms of squeezing the most from his game, Geoff Ogilvy, the 2009 and 2010 TOC champion, immediately produces Johnson’s name as the “most impressive.”

“Because,” says Ogilvy, “the first time you play with Zach, you’re like, ‘He’s tidy, but he’s going to get beaten by someone like Rory (McIlroy) or someone when they play well.’ But he doesn’t. He’s won the Masters (2007), he’s won big tournaments, he’s won here, which you’d think is a bombers’ place. He’s won on long courses, short courses, small tournaments, big tournaments.

“He’s probably the most prolific winner out here, isn’t he? Or Adam (Scott). But Adam looks like he should win all the time. I’m sure Zach would look at Adam and one of his 330-yard drives and say, ‘I wish I could do that.’”

Johnson, who ranked 141st on Tour in driving distance last season (282.2 yards), knows that isn’t going to happen. Instead, he relies on his strengths – getting his tee ball in play (sixth last season in driving accuracy, at 70.51 percent), hitting greens (67 percent) and scrambling well when he misses them. His tee-to-green game may at times may appear somewhat ordinary, but his wedge play and his heart are anything but. He’s a fierce competitor, an avid sports fan who finds himself continually rooting for the underdog, or whatever team that might be losing. So, what’s the extra intangible he possesses that pushes him across the line so frequently?

“I don’t know,” Johnson said. “That’s certainly something I think about occasionally, and something my team and I may chew on a little bit here and there. The first thing that comes to mind is I’m never content, whether I’m playing great or playing average or bad. … I guess those would be more tangibles. That and the fact that I just love to compete.

“I get into a mode where I’m in control of my game and you get to the weekend and you get into Sunday and there’s obviously a chance to win – I relish it, I savor it. I mean, I want it. … I really like having the ball. You know, I’m going to shoot it.”

He may not always make it, but he’s willing to take the shot. There’s great confidence in that. Fortunately, he’s made more than his share, too, and in the process, turned a nice little golf career into a booming, thriving business.

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