Zach Johnson: Playing in Circles

The John Deere Classic got off to a rip-roaring start on Thursday on the TPC Deere Run in Silvas, Illinois. With many projecting that 20-under would win this year, two guys shot 7-under 64 on the first day! It was nice to see Camilo Villegas playing well again; he had just one bogey. And it was even nicer to see defending champion, Zach Johnson, not even make one.

Both of these guys had great mastery ideas to share in their media center interviews, great mastery ideas. So beginning with Camilo because his comments speak directly to his comeback of sorts, and then continuing with Zach’s more extensive ideas, here’s what two of the best players in the game had to share with us. 

He’s missed 6 cuts this year and only had 2 top-10s, but he’s made his last 5 cuts and it looks like he’ll surely make this one. Quite a comedown, but it looks like a nice little comeback in the making. Here’s what he had to say about what that downward spiral looks and feels like. He doesn’t yet think his form is as good as the end of last season:

Well, if you go by form, so nowhere near close, but it depends how you look at it.  It’s the game of golf.  Nobody is immune to having ups and downs, and yes, the last year and a half hasn’t been the best result‑wise for me. But I’ve been working hard, and I do feel like my game is getting closer.  So that’s always exciting.

So is it just his results that are missing or is some fundamental issue in his swing?

Let me tell you, I wish I knew.  It’s the game of golf.  It’s a messed‑up game.  It’s a great game, but if we had the answers to — sometimes there’s just really no answer.  It is what it is.  You make a little mistake here, you make a little mistake there, you start adding, and the numbers just don’t add.  You have great confidence, you lose a tiny little bit of confidence, then you add the numbers, and guess what, the numbers don’t add.  So there’s so many things that can go one way or the other.

I truly believe that sometimes we overanalyze.  When guys start playing bad, guess what:  they start getting a lot of calls, and I can help you, and then you’ve got the mental coach, you’ve got the golf swing coach, you’ve got the fitness trainer.  You’ve got all these people that everybody seems to have the answer, and nobody has the answer, it’s only you.  It’s all about just kind of relaxing, enjoying it, and playing a little bit more as a kid.  If I have to sum it up, that would be what I would say.

So far, he seems to be having fun in playland.

And so is Zach Johnson. He’s had 17 consecutive rounds in the 60s on this course. And sometimes the key to keeping it going is to not try to keep it going:

Yeah, I mean, it was a really, really solid day.  Today was one of those days where I remember I was thinking over the last few days I felt really good, but when you’re striking it well Monday, and I played back at home Monday, and then when you’re striking it well Tuesday and same thing on Wednesday, you’re like, okay, just don’t stop.  That’s not easy to do.

But I came in today just trying to be fresh and patient and trying to forget about frankly even the last three days and just trying to stay in the present.  I mean, as I continued to make birdies it just felt like I was playing — just going through the routine and the motions of hitting shots.  It certainly doesn’t hurt when you’re playing with one, two good friends [Steve Stricker and Davis Love III who were both 4-under], and two guys that are playing great, as well.

Got off to a good start, and I felt like I ended pretty well, as well.

So was this a continuation of his good play from last year?

Not really.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year.  Yeah, I just kind of felt like you’re just leading into the next round here.  The weather feels very similar.  The course is, once again, in tremendous shape, and that goes without saying here.  It is the John Deere, right?  Yeah, and just I guess the only difference is that I changed partners when I teed it up the first hole this year.  Fortunately those partners were two good friends.  But yeah, it just kind of feels like everything is flowing from year to year, which is a lot of fun.

Has playing here as defending champion with all that goes along with that give him a better appreciation of Steve Stricker winning three years in a row?

Yeah, I actually mentioned that outside.  Playing in front of friends and family, I’ve gotten used to it.  Playing in this golf tournament and on this golf course I’ve gotten used to.  Playing as a board member I’ve gotten used to.  However, I don’t know what my record has been here.  Obviously I won last year and I had a good finish the previous year, but I can only imagine winning this tournament twice in a row, let alone three times in a row.  I think I’ve defended once successfully, but it was like a seven‑month lap over rather than 12‑month lap over on Tour, and it’s just not easy.

Confidence is great.  I mean, anything you — when you can embrace the positives you had from the previous year or previous rounds, that sort of thing, that’s great.  However, you still have to — you’ve got to feel the outcome, kind of eliminating the thoughts out of your brain and really just stay in the present.  Like you said, that’s what makes what Steve did that much more impressive.  To take it to another level, that’s what makes what Tiger has done over the years on multiple golf courses, multiple events, repeating, defending, what have you, even beyond impressive.

Does his comfort level with a place he’s had success at feed on itself?

Yeah, when you’re comfortable with the grounds, that always helps.  When you’re comfortable with the surroundings, when you’re comfortable with the peripherals, when you’re comfortable with — I mean, my routine here has been the same the last three or four years.  We’re staying in the same place.  I’ve got my family with me.  I’ve got my extended family coming to visit.

Some minor obligations.  Most of my obligations [as a board member] with the tournament are for the most part before this week.  Clair [Peterson, the tournament director] does a great job of letting me — and the staff does a great job of just letting me get into my game, which I’m appreciative of.  Minimal board responsibilities the week of the tournament.

You know, it just feels natural now.  I mean, I’ve gotten so used to just being here that it just feels very, very comfortable, you know, much like my golf game, though, I don’t want to get overly content with the fact that I’m overly comfortable.  So I’ve still got to go work.

I was kind of thinking about it a couple days ago:  I haven’t had a great year as far as my stats go or finishes, if you will, but I kind of — it kind of frees me up almost right now, and it’s just nice that this week falls in that slot.  I feel great about my game, but I’ve felt great about my game for the last month and a half, and I’m continuing to get more and more comfortable with my game.

It’s nice having a tournament and a course that I’m certainly happy to be playing.  I’d play it every week.

Part of his success is having learned how to play in front of his hometown crowd, people who want to see him do well and for whom he wants to do well.  And he has shared that wisdom with some of the younger players:

Like I said the previous question, I’ve just gotten so used to just everything about this tournament.  I mean, especially having close people outside the ropes following me.  That was hard for me at one time.  I mean, I’ve actually had discussions with some of the young guys out here about that very subject:  how do you play in front of hometown sort of people, family?  You want to do so well for them.  You want to push it, and it’s easy to kind of get ahead of yourself and start thinking about birdies and 60 something and top 5 and all that sort of thing, rather than just staying in the moment.

I’m not trying to overly simplify it, but what I’ve done is just felt like, you know what, it doesn’t matter if I shoot 85 or if I shoot 60.  Michael Haas and Greg Brown are still going to be here cheering for me.  It’s just the fact of the game and where I’m at here, and I’m so thankful for that.

What exactly does he tell the young players?

Yeah, it is cliché in a lot of respects.  You have to throw out the past.  You have to throw out the fact that you’re comfortable here, or just the opposite, that you’re not comfortable in this position.  Just eliminate the outcome thoughts and stay in the now because the reason you’re playing in front of friends and family near your hometown is because you’re a good player.  So just go do what you do, and if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, but you’re going to learn from it.

I mean, you know, I feel like I’m playing great right now, but if I was coming into this week not really confident and I struggled today, that’s a very possible scenario next year, or heck, even tomorrow unfortunately. But I feel confident about tomorrow.  It’s a possible scenario any year, and that’s fine.  I can live with that, especially now that I’ve won, but even before that.  I could live with the fact that I don’t play well in front of family or friends just because to them it’s — they still like following me, regardless.

We often hear about how players pull each other along when they’re all playing good. Was that true today with Steve and Davis?

Yeah, I think there’s some truth to that.  I don’t know why that is, maybe just because you see one ball get in the fairway and it seems like it’s easier to paint your picture and hit your shot.  I can’t answer that.  That’s probably a sports psychology kind of question.  But yeah, I mean, it’s comfortable just because you’re seeing a lot of solid shots and you’re not seeing errant shots take bad bounces and get into trouble.  Anything visual like that potentially could cause a hiccup.

Yeah, I mean, it’s nice playing with two guys that are playing well.  I mean, I don’t know what they shot, but they probably played better — I feel like they played better than what they shot.

A few years ago, his process called for him to make a decision while he was in his shot and then just accept where it goes. Has he refined that at all over the years?

Yeah, I mean, to really probably — well, to explain that further, Dr. Mo Pickens and I, we talk a lot, but one thing we do, it seems like it’s kind of every few months, every couple months we try to keep things fresh.  We may go back to something down the road, but to answer your question, back then it was the same thing.  It was a circle, right?  Each shot was a circle:

  • Picking my target out or picking my club,
  • figuring out all the elements,
  • committing,
  • executing,
  • reacting,
  • and then doing it again.

What I have in my yardage book this week is that exact same circle that was put into play at Merion in the U.S. Open.

I’m always trying to think like that.  However, sometimes you’ve got to change it a little bit or maybe tweak it.  Not change it but just kind of tweak it, just depending on where you are mentally.  Dr. Mo does a great job with that.

And just how good is he at accepting the result of a shot?

I think that’s one of my stronger suits.  I mean, I’m going to get frustrated or upset, but you want to, and then you’ve just got to completely put it away, and whether you have just like — you count or whether you take a couple deep breaths or whatever it is, I feel like kind of bouncing back, if you will, whether it’s a hole or one shot in particular, or a round, I feel like I’ve been pretty good with that over my career.  I’m still probably getting — I still can get better with it, but I feel like it’s one of my better suits.

To me that’s something that I think you can kind of label as just being mentally tough.  When things are going astray, you just get back on course.  I don’t enjoy it, but I certainly relish the fact that I can do it.

He played well in defense of his title at Colonial, finishing 3rd. Did anything he did there carry over to this week?

That’s one thing I’m proud of is Colonial.  I had a pretty average round I think it was the first, maybe second round, I can’t remember.  But I played really steady golf the rest of the week and never put myself in a position to really make a big number or even make a bogey.  I think my bogeys were three‑putts.  So yeah, I like that.  Knowing that I can do it and be comfortable playing well back‑to‑back years is great.  But it’s not like it’s going to be given to me.  I’ve got to work and continue like we were just saying, going through my circles.

What will be interesting Friday — knowing how the mind works — is, now that he’s shared all of his mastery ideas with the world, will his mind be fixed on trying to live up to them after such a public declaration? Or will he be able to successfully navigate the day just as he did Thursday, by simply staying in the moment and calmly going through his circles?

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