Zach Johnson: On Playing Around Your Fears

The PGA Tour is in San Antonio, Texas, this week for the Valero Texas Open. I am so glad that Valero decided to title the tournament that way because there just has to be a Texas Open. They’re going to play it at the TPC San Antonio at the Marriott. (Interesting that Marriott has this little niche going what with hosting last week’s LPGA Founder Cup at the Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix.)

The course is a par 72 that stretches out to 7,435 yards that Martin Laird managed the best last year with his two-shot victory over Rory McIlroy.

Zach Johnson was in the media center on Tuesday and the bulk of the questions were predictably about the course, it’s condition this year compared to last year, how hard the greens were, what would happen to the greens if it rained, etc.

But every now and then there are also some gems among the routine. In this case, it wasn’t hard to find because it came out of nowhere. 

Q.  What are you afraid of, whether it be specific shots, types of shots or shots at courses?  How often do guys deal with fear and how do you overcome it?

Where did that come from? It sounds like a question I would ask. And Johnson was very forthcoming:

I get jitters on certain shots, you know, but it’s always certain holes and conditions, you know, it’s never — I don’t fear situations.  Does that make sense?  Anything, I probably go the other way, I probably get overly excited and anxious.

There’s holes, like 18 at Doral.  You got to pucker up there.  That tee shot stinks even if it is downwind.  If I hit — the shots I fear would be like a 300-yard carry.  I can’t do it so I shouldn’t fear it.  Enough said about that.

Another good example of jitters on “holes and conditions” would be the 17th island green at TPC Sawgrass in the Players Championship. It’s only a wedge or a 9-iron, but what if it’s a blustery two-club wind into you? Or three-club wind?

You’d have to fashion some sort of knockdown shot to make the carry over the water without glancing off the back because of the lower trajectory. And what if it was a quartering wind? How do you translate the proper club then? And, flip it around, what if it was downwind?

That’s what Johnson was talking about. In the next question he expands what he meant by not being afraid in situations.

Q.  Is the thought process any different over a daunting shot?

Hmm. A cleverly crafted question to take the highly charged word “fear” out of it — in the mano a mano world of the PGA Tour, nobody wants to be labeled a “fraidy cat” — while at the same time pressing a little deeper:

It shouldn’t be.  If you just — I’m working really hard on trying to make each shot the same, you know, each shot is not any more or less important than the next or the previous.

Yup. Just flatline everything. In the heat and intensity of competitive golf, it’s the emotional ups and downs that throw you, that get you out of equilibrium. How do you deal with this? By getting yourself into those situations, by recognizing that your emotions are now in the mix of things and by being self-aware enough that you can “watch” your emotional reactions subside as you get back to flatline. That is, dealing objectively with the world in front of you, whether it’s golf or anything else.

So, just going through my circle and just trying to, you know, good routine, good looks, great rhythm.  That’s really all it is.

Johnson deals with his jitters by ensuring that he has a pre-shot routine that is purposeful, slavishly redundant and times out the same each and every time…by getting out of his head by really looking at the target and the shot in his mind’s eye; no idle glances…and by having a consistent rhythm to his swing imprinted in his consciousness born of years of playing and practice in non-stressful situations; getting quick is the kiss of death.

Yeah, I mean, like I said, you get jitters every now and then and coming down the stretch of a tournament I don’t really get fearful if I’m in contention.

Like I said, I get more — I get excited and anxious.  It’s always try to breathe and pay attention to my, I guess my cadence and the way I’m kind of processing things.

“Pay attention…” he says. But working on the way you’re thinking almost always begins in the postmortem of a competitive round when you never knew what hit you. And it can’t come in the moment in the beginning of this kind of work because you can’t think straight in the moment.

Over time and tournaments, you look back and say “I can’t believe what I was thinking about.” And as the dismay over that mindlessness grows, so too does its distance in the rearview mirror. And in time, it disappears all together.

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