Zach Johnson: Waiting For the Good Stretches

After 36 holes at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Zach Johnson has moved out to a 3-shot lead on the Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort on Maui, Hawaii.

He’s trailed by a serious, 3-player contingent of guys who could snatch his dreams away in a hole or two: Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Jordan Spieth. They are all at 10-under par. Dustin came back from a lackluster first round with a 7-under 66, Matt moved up with a tidy 5-under 68 and Jordan held his own with a 3-under 70 after Friday’s breakaway 66.

All of them had a lot to say about the physical playability of the course: the wide fairways, the undulating greens and the grain in the greens. They all had something to say about the winds and how they shifted from the trade winds to the Kona winds and every which way.

But the most interesting comments came from Zach Johnson when he peeled back the cover on some of the mastery ideas that he employs. 

It began with a great question about whether he had ever felt more comfortable with his game:

No, I haven’t.  I mean, it’s one of those things, I try to, even though he’s not here, I try to talk to a couple of my coaches, specifically [sports psychologist Morris Pickens] Dr. Mo, for a week, and I [come away] feeling good about my game, but I’ve still got to go play.

So you get yourself all pumped up, ready to run through fire, and then fall flat on your face. So Johnson just works on maintaining an even keel, staying in the present and patiently waiting for the good play that he knows will come from all the hard work.

There’s been so many weeks where it’s like, oh my gosh, this is awesome, and I played terrible.  It’s one of those things, I’m trying to stay right now — all the clichés, trying to do that and focusing on that, because I know what this game can do.  I’m waiting — I’m just waiting.  Waiting for good stretches.

Back when I was Monday qualifying on the Champions Tour, we used to envy all the exempt players who could have a bad week, but it didn’t really matter because they were exempt into next week. We, on the other hand, couldn’t have a bad round on Monday, couldn’t have a bad round if we got in because we needed the money to boost our status and we couldn’t lose the tournament because we’d be back to Mondays the next week.

Dr. Mo gave Johnson the notion of taking the urgency out of his game…because he is exempt and there is always next week. From that mind-set, it’s possible to just stay in the process without stopping to look around at all the “what ifs.”:

And then the other thing that Dr. Mo threw at me, just use this as preparation for next week and use next week as preparation for the following week, etc., etc., so never really getting too caught up in scores.  Never really getting too caught up in, you know, where I’m at, numbers and places and that sort of thing.  I’m not saying it’s going to work every week but that’s kind of my mind-set right now.

So what that creates is a sense of comfortableness while the waiting goes on:

I’m comfortable, comfortable with the makeup of my bag and comfortable how [my caddie] Damon and I are attacking [the course] and comfortable how for the most part I’m hitting putts. So just trying to be patient.

But what then, would be the significance of Augusta?

Just a prep week for Hilton Head, is that what you’re saying?  Yeah, but why shouldn’t it be, it’s just another week, you know.  I don’t mean to dumb it down but however you can simplify this game, however you can simplify it, however you can take outcome-oriented thoughts out of the game, I think you’ve got to stick to it and you’ve got to put it in your pocket.

I don’t know how other guys do it.  I can ramble off three or four or five names that seem like they do it great and that’s why they don’t play that much and when they do, they play well, and they are fresh.

So given all of the foregoing, is he at the point where he thinks that his game and mind-set are suited to every course?

No.  No, I’m not.  And we’ve kind of studied that a little bit, my whole entourage of a team, if you will.  We haven’t gotten too in-depth on it, I don’t want to overdo it.  Because like you said, if you’re playing well, does it really matter where you play?  Probably not.  You know, to win golf tournaments out here, you’ve got to get good bounces.  You’ve got to get putts that lip out, lip in.

But there is still the reality of courses that are more suited to your game. I once withdrew from a Monday after just one look at it while I was putting my yardage book together. Got back to the car and called the tournament office. Didn’t even have to think about it. One of my buddies, on the other hand, said it was one of his favorite courses:

Saying that, there’s a couple of tracks, a couple of venues, a couple of surfaces that I’m not overly comfortable with and I don’t know if I’m completely eliminating them [from the schedule] but I’ve kind of got an idea as to when to play and when not to play.  I mean, I’m playing the first three weeks [Maui, Honolulu, Palm Springs].

Playing here because it’s here and next week is a great golf course for me and that’s not a secret [he won the Sony Open in 2009] and I think Humana is great, those venues are great for me, because it’s ryegrass greens, they are pretty true, and the courses aren’t monstrous.

But I’m not playing San Diego, I’m not playing Phoenix, I’m not playing Pebble, I’m not playing L.A.  So I’m taking four weeks off.  [The WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in] Tucson is definitely not a course for me but I’m using that as a prep week for Honda [in Palm Beach Gardens] (laughter).

Pretty good stuff. So now we get to see how he does in this three-week stretch, how he does at the Match Play on a course that’s not the best for him and how turning that into prep for the Honda works out.

But even then, if nothing comes of it, we know we won’t have to worry about him. Why? Because we know that all he’s doing is waiting for the good stretches. That will be as interesting as if he wins one of them because that is the chronic state of professional golf: you almost always lose.

So can you keep doing your work, can you patiently stay in the process, even when it might feel like your whole world is crumbling around you?

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