Zach Johnson: Simplifying Things at the Sony Open

The calendar has flipped over to January and with the arrival of the Sony Open in Hawaii, notwithstanding the new wraparound season, it feels like a new season used to feel. The Waialae Country Club beckons everybody who’s eligible to come bask in the sun, find their way around the narrow fairways and keep the ball below the hole.

And 144 players have taken up the challenge, not that Honolulu, Hawaii, is such tough duty when the rest of the country is enduring record freezing temperatures.

The course is a Par 70 that measures just over 7,000 yards, 44 yards over to be exact. It’s defense is the winds that can move pretty briskly across the flat, beachfront property. The good news is they’re only forecast for 5 to 10 miles per hour on Thursday; the bad news is that the rain showers are supposed to begin at 1 AM with a 40% chance that they’ll continue all day long. The players will all be listening trying to determine if it will be heavy enough to make the course unplayable…another mental distraction (I can’t seem to get rid of the image from a couple of years ago of Jamie Lovemark hitting balls, crouched over the mats at a local driving range because the range at Waialae was drenched). 

And they’ve done a pretty good job of attracting a field to an out of the way place. It helped that the Hyundai Tournament of Champions just finished up a couple of island hops away, so most of those guys carried on: Defending Champion, Russell Henley, Adam Scott, Jason Dufner, Matt Kuchar, Jordan Spieth, Boo Weekley and the winner, Zach Johnson, to name the headliners.

Everybody wanted to get another shot at asking Johnson follow-up questions about his refined approach that has brought about all of his continuing success. And it began by asking him if he was playing his best golf:

Well, I think with age comes experience, right, so I think I’m the most experienced I’ve been.  I think I’ve seen every arena in golf, and I’ve played well in essentially every arena in golf.  The setup and the makeup of the PGA TOUR doesn’t affect me.  I enjoy that.

More than that, I think it’s just that my coaches and I have got a good system now.  We’ve got a good direction, good vision for the future, we’ve got a great plan for right now and just staying in the moment, staying in the process.

We’ve set great objective goals and drills and kind of things that I can kind of practice on that I know that transfers on the golf course.

But yeah, I mean, other than that, I’m also healthy.  That’s a big part of it out here, knock on wood.  I’m healthy.

At the Tournament of Champions he had mentioned how all of this was simplifying the game for him and they wanted to know how he did that?

Well, I think it comes down to one key thing, maybe a couple key things, but most importantly, it is a very, very intricate game.  There’s so many things that you can pick apart and attach to and get down to.  But I can only control the things I can control, and so that’s really my focus.

The interesting thing about these media interviews is that most of the players earnestly try to be responsive to the questions. But their understanding of what they know is at a level of complexity and nuance that most people wouldn’t immediately grasp without the experience that the player has. So they express the gist of it because to go deeper would require a whole tutorial. I had that experience with Ai Miyazato and Sandra Gal last year at the LPGA’s Founder Cup and they were both a little surprised, but very responsive, to my interest in taking the conversation deeper.

And so here too, the Sony media wanted a better understanding of just what Johnson meant by simplifying. So once you get it reduced to its simplest form, how do you keep the rest of it out of your head? Great question:

Well, for lack of a better description I talk to myself about it. At night or in the mornings before I leave, I’m just trying to say, okay, I know how I’m going to walk, I know the rhythm I’m going to swing, I know that I can control my tempo, I can know I can control my routine, I know I can control where’s my target, where’s my line, those things that I can visually see and mentally hold captive, I’m going to try to control.

Where the ball ends up is not entirely in my control.  That’s where trust in what I’ve done on the practice range, trust in what I’ve done on the putting green will help me control things I can’t control, and that’s where the confidence comes from.

That and the fact that Damon [Green, his caddie] and I are just going well together.  We understand each other probably almost too well.

So that begged the question how long he and Green have been a team and I was surprised at Johnson’s answer; I hadn’t particularly been paying attention until Johnson began to be a fixture at the top of the leaderboards and didn’t realize they’d been together for quite a while:

Well, this was my first start in ’04.  He caddied for Scott Hoch in Maui and he caddied for Scott Hoch here, and then we got together the next week in the desert [the old Bob Hope] and been together since.

And if you were there, you would immediately have understood why Green would have been interested in Johnson. In 2003, he was Player of the Year and Leading Money Winner on the Web.com Tour with a record $494,882. Back in those days, that was a fortune on the Web.com.

That following year, 2004, they teamed up to win $2.4 million, only the second player in Tour history to exceed $2 million in his rookie year. And perhaps making him one of the most unsung players on the Tour, he’s won a total of $31.6 million since then placing him at 14th on the list.

Not a bad guy to be asking nuanced mastery questions.

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