5 Things: Johnson, fill-in caddie lead Deere

Zach Johnson works with fill-in caddie Lance Bennett during Friday's second round of the PGA Tour's 2014 John Deere Classic.
Zach Johnson works with fill-in caddie Lance Bennett during Friday's second round of the PGA Tour's 2014 John Deere Classic. ( Getty Images )

Friday, July 11, 2014

SILVIS, Ill. – As Zach Johnson walked off the 18th green at the John Deere Classic, a group of fans yelled, “We love you Zach.”

Johnson, who won the tournament in 2012 and finished runner-up last year, tipped his cap in appreciation. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native continues to give the locals reason to cheer, posting his 22nd consecutive round in the 60s at TPC Deere Run. This time he fired a 4-under 67 to share the 36-hole lead at 12-under 130 with William McGirt.

“They don’t care if I shoot 62 or 82,” Johnson said of the local support he receives. “Trying to play for them might have been part of the issue years ago but not anymore. If anything I embrace it, and two, I just really appreciate the support.”

Here are 5 Things You Need to Know from the second round of the JDC.

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1. JOHNSON'S FILL-IN CADDIE: When Zach Johnson’s longtime caddie Damon Green qualified for the U.S. Senior Open this week, Johnson was in need of a bagman. He found an experience hand in Lance Bennett, whose regular bag, Matt Kuchar, took three weeks off before next week’s Open Championship and gave Johnson permission to team with Bennett.

“He’s a great caddie,” Johnson said. “He’s probably had to get more used to me than I’ve had to get used to him. He’s made it really easy for me. We’re trying to play that really simple, boring golf, and that’s kind of what Matt plays.”

For Bennett, it’s only the second time he’s worked for another pro during his eight-year tenure with Kuchar. He said that about five or six years ago he caddied for Casey Wittenberg in Milwaukee rather than go overseas for the Open Championship. So far, the combination with Johnson has clicked.

“He and Matt are so similar is what I’ve learned,” said Bennett, who last caddied here in 2009. “Their swings are very different but their personalities are the same. They are both grinders and they never give up.”

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2. MCGIRT FLIES UNDER RADAR: Journeyman pro William McGirt set the pace early, following up a 64 with a second-round 66 in the morning. He is searching for his first career win on the PGA Tour this week in his 112th start. His name atop the leaderboard may not spur a rush of ticket sales, but McGirt is comfortable with his anonymity.

“I love being in that position because you can go about your business and nobody really knows who you are,” McGirt said. “You can go to dinner and everybody kind of looks at you and goes, ‘Are you a golfer?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘William.’ You just leave it at that, and they walk away and they’re like, ‘Who was that guy?’ ”

McGirt is that guy who leads the field with a tournament-best 48 putts through two rounds and is tops in strokes gained putting with an average of 2.987. McGirt, who said a balky putter has held him back of late, couldn’t have predicted his putting prowess on the greens this week.

“You could have put a garbage can out there and it would have found a way to miss,” he said of his recent shortcomings with the flat stick. “It’s a stupid game, it really is.”

Now he finds himself in Saturday’s final pairing and he says he’s prepared for the swarm of fans that likely will be in the corner of the local favorite Johnson.

“It’s something you kind of have to thrive on,” he said. “I mean, if you can’t deal with it you’re in the wrong profession.”

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3. BIRDIES GALORE: The group of three-time JDC champ Steve Stricker, defending champion Jordan Spieth and 2009 Open Championship winner Stewart Cink splurged for 22 birdies as a group.

“It was nice because everyone was pouring it in,” Spieth said. “I felt like I had to birdie just to tie the hole with the guys in the group.”

Spieth blazed the path early, reaching 7 under through his first 11 holes before playing the final seven holes at level par. He credited better wedge play for his improved scoring. At 7-under 135, Spieth is at the same score at the halfway point as he was a year ago when he rallied on the weekend to force a playoff.

Stricker is three back of the lead after shooting a 6-under 65 Friday. Stricker caught fire on his second nine (the front at TPC Deere Run) notching five birdies.

“It was a round that I needed for sure to try to get back in there to get up closer to the top,” Stricker said.

Cink carded seven birdies in his round of 66 to climb to 7-under.

“I didn’t play great but took advantage of my opportunities,” Cink said. “I made some putts and my short game was sharp.”

To no surprise, the marquee pairing of the morning wave drew the largest crowds.

“When you win a tournament three times they like you,” Cink said of Stricker. “It’s like he’s a local guy. Jordan, too. Jordan is like a local guy wherever he goes now. He’s that boy next door. Stricker is that dad next door.”

And whom does that make you, Cink was asked?

“I’m the bald, creepy cousin,” he said.

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4. IHM-PRESSIVE: Former Iowa Hawkeye Steve Ihm (pronounced I’m) birdied seven of the last 10 holes en route to a second round 6-under 65 and made the cut in his pro debut at 4-under 138.

Ihm, 22, who won the 2013 Sunnehanna Amateur and was a three-time All-Big Ten Conference honoree, is playing this week on a sponsor’s exemption.

“When you get the opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it,” Ihm said. “I mean, not a lot of guys get to make their pro debut at a PGA Tour event.”

What does Ihm’s upcoming schedule look like? Well, he intends to try to Monday Qualify at Web.com Tour events the next few weeks and if that doesn’t pan out, his backup plan is the Waterloo Open, Cedar Rapids Open and the Iowa State Open. Later this year, he said he expects to move to Florida and compete in the Tour’s Q-School in hopes of earning Web.com status for 2015.

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5. SHORT SHOTS: Charles Howell III aced the 132-yard, third hole with a gap wedge. … Tim Clark posted the low round of the day with a bogey-free 63. … 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Jordan Niebrugge (T-49) shot 68 to make the cut in advance of his defense of his title next week. … The consecutive–cuts-made streak for Chris Kirk (71-71—142) ended at 22. … Due to a threat of inclement weather in the afternoon, third-round tee times will take place between 9:50 a.m. and 11:50 CDT in threesomes off Nos. 1 and 10.