Rude: Zach Johnson sticks to strengths

Zach Johnson, through the 2014 Humana Challenge, has bested par in 11 straight PGA Tour events.

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At 5-11, 160 pounds, Zach Johnson doesn’t look like much. Any NFL lineman could pick him up with one hand and serve him to Tim Herron as an hors d’oeuvre. In street clothes, Johnson passes for a 37-year-old insurance salesman from Cedar Rapids, sans pocket protector. A guy like that checks out dark alleys only on television. But put him on a golf course and he’s a bully.

Since June, he regularly has carved up the world’s best players. Never mind that he’s a short knocker. He’s a bunter bludgeoning home-run hitters with ultra-straight driving and brilliant wedging and putting. If golf is a three-club game and has a current poster boy, it’s the methodical man known as ZJ.

Johnson gives all golfers hope in what we thought was the bomber era. Learn how to hit a fairway and wedge it tight and roll in a 15-footer and you too can frustrate a masher. That’s his formula and he’s not about to deviate, no matter how much sand a burly man such as Robert Garrigus might kick in his face.

“I don’t hit it very far, but I stick to my strengths,” Johnson said at the Humana Challenge, where he birdied the last five holes for a 62 and third-place tie before a four-week break. “It’s not rocket science.”

But it makes for eye-opening mathematics. Johnson has won two of his last seven PGA Tour tournaments – not counting victory in Tiger Woods’ unofficial, short-field gathering in December – and has finished in the top 10 in 10 of his last 13 starts. The technical term for that has been Tiger-esque.

Whatever, the run has moved Johnson to sixth in the world. It’s the high-level consistency, not the excellence, that is new, for Johnson has won more Tour titles than anybody but Woods and Phil Mickelson since the start of 2007. And only those two and Vijay Singh have bagged more trophies than Johnson’s 11 since 2003. Little wonder that several Tour players have humored Johnson by saying, “Just wait and be patient and your game will improve.” Some come up and touch him and his putter, hoping for magic to rub off.

“A lot of them are happy because they have a chance to do the same thing,” caddie Damon Green said.

Johnson’s game improved post-slump last spring. He and coach Mike Bender fixed a technique that was out of kilter when Johnson tried to hit the ball higher and farther. He won’t try that again, for he realized driving into rough wasn’t beneficial to his precision game. But he did add a few yards and accuracy when going down a degree to an 8.5 driver. The changes helped move him from 69th in FedEx Cup points on July 1 to fifth at season’s end.

Johnson says it’s easy to play within himself and to his strengths because he knows it works. He finds further peace knowing the statistician he employs (Peter Sanders) maintains that driving distance is the least important Tour statistic.

“Zach’s biggest strength is, he understands what he’s good at and has made himself great at it,” said 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover, a fellow St. Simons Island, Ga., resident. “It’s really amazing how good he is at his strengths,” said Stewart Cink, Johnson’s closest friend on Tour.

Other peers and statistics affirm as much. Johnson entered last week second in driving accuracy, has established himself as one of the game’s five best wedge players and annually ranks among the best putters. Add it up and you get about $32 million for the former mini-tour grinder.

Success happened via work, not accident. Johnson is a Bernhard Langer-like perfectionist when it comes to dialing in wedge yardages and trajectories. He practices ad nauseam on a wedge range at his home course, the targets separated by 10-yard intervals from 30 to 100 yards. It’s similar to the one Bender set up for him in the Orlando area before Johnson won the 2007 Masters, where he laid up on all par 5s.

Aemotional might not be an acceptable Scrabble word, but Johnson uses it often when talking about what kind of golf he wants to play. That means focusing on controllable things such as rhythm and routine, down to walking and breathing, rather than shot outcome.

“His focus and intensity on the golf course are second to none,” said Harris English, another hotshot from St. Simons. “He wants to have the ball in his hands in the last second. You can’t teach that. Zach has that it factor.”

What he also has is the discipline of an ultimate professional. Just listen to him. He talks of excelling at preparation, scheduling, warmups and competitive focus. This thorough man of routines says he’s “never content,” always seeking improvement.

You might think golf is an individual sport, but it’s not in Johnson’s case. The past five years Johnson has held a year-end “summit” with his team to analyze the past season and make a detailed plan for the next, down to strict time allocation for off weeks and tournaments.

His latest three-day gathering, right after Thanksgiving in San Diego, involved his coach, caddie, agent, personal trainer, sports psychologist, chiropractor and statistician, not to mention a visit to the Titleist Performance Institute. Somehow no nutritionist attended.

“It’s like a company board meeting with all the department heads,” said Morris Pickens, the psychologist. “Nothing is left unchecked,” agent Brad Buffoni said.

In other words, Zach Johnson, golf’s streaking little big man, doesn’t just roll out of bed and onto the first tee. Or into a dark alley, for that matter.

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