Zach Johnson: A Classic at the John Deere Classic

Sunday’s final round in the John Deere Classic at the TPC Deere Run, in the Quad Cities, played out like some sort of pat television drama. You know, the kind where the story revolves around three characters that keep bumping into one another quite by “coincidence?”

We had the guy with the 3-shot lead, Troy Matteson. We had the wily old veteran and putter extraordinaire, Steve Sticker, right behind him going for a 4-peat. And we had the local boy wonder Zach Johnson, who is on the board of the tournament because it means so much to him.

The first thing that happened is that Matteson refused to fold. All day long, you kept waiting for the big number, but he came off the front at Even and didn’t fall behind until he doubled 15. There was an unusual peace about him. There was a confident, accelerating meter to his swing that made it look like it would never let him down.

I was pretty relaxed this week.  Usually I’m a Nervous Nelly.  Usually I’m pretty bad.  I can’t sleep at night.  I’m like everybody else that plays with a lead.

I was relatively calm today and not even sure why.  Still pretty calm in the playoff.  That’s not usually the way I am.  Hopefully that’s a sign of getting older and getting a little bit used to it.

The second thing that happened is that the Golden Boy of the Tour, Steve Stricker, began to slowly work his way up the leaderboard. It began to look like he had a chance to pull it off. He got within one shot by the fourth hole and then parred out on the front nine and was still just one back. Matteson opened it to two on the tenth, but Sticker birdied right back. Matteson pressed back to two on 13, Stricker gave another back on 14, and three back at that point, was a little demoralized.

I had a five or six‑footer for par.  If I made that, I think it could be a little bit different.

But that deflated me a little bit.  If I could have 2‑putted on the next hole, you know, I would have been all right.  I still figured we had some birdie holes coming up with 16, 17, and sometimes 18 you can make a birdie.

But those couple holes there really kind of took a lot of steam out of me, 14, 15.

And the third thing that happened is that Zach Johnson did nothing for six holes. The hometown boy was just treading water, a non-factor.

I still felt good about where things were.  Felt good about how I was attacking, playing, and swinging.  I think I was getting too quick and a little bit too in front of myself, both literally and figuratively.

I was playing too quick with rhythm and patience, and then I was also missing shots to the right, which means I get out in front of it.  Just a little too quick.

With that problem spotted with the help of his caddie for the week, his swing coach, Mike Bender, the tide began to come in. Beginning on the 7th, he quietly made one birdie after another (six of them we later realized) until Matteson doubled 15 and fell one back. Johnson got to 20-under on 17, and then Matteson caught him with an improbable 60-foot eagle putt on 17. And that’s where they stood when they finished their rounds. Johnson just seemed to come out of nowhere.

The playoff was a comedy of errors for both of them. Johnson drove it in the back of the left fairway bunker and then Matteson hit it in the right tree line. They both ended up making double after hitting it into the pond left of the green. Matteson summed it up:

Playoffs are a weird deal because it’s two guys, that’s it, and really doesn’t matter how long the hole is, where the pin placement is.  It just matters the number of shots.

I’m looking at where he is and he’s looking at where I am.  I figured he could get it on the green, so I just figure I’ll take a shot at it.  After those two drives, gosh, we were probably lucky to make 6, and luckily it didn’t happen in regulation to us.

18 is a difficult hole.  That’s the way [the architect] set it up.  He set it up to be a good finishing hole.  It’s just really hard to put one right down the middle there.

So then it was deja vu all over again the second time Johnson hit his drive, this time into the middle of the left bunker. Matteson hit his in the fairway next to the bunker. But this time Johnson was away. With 193 to the back left hole, he carved a 6-iron out of the bunker that hit in the middle of the green and then slowly rolled in an inevitable arc to six inches from the hole. It was a career shot, a championship shot.

But don’t feel bad for Matteson. His finish garnered him an exemption into this week’s British Open, his first. He did have to give up playing in Monday’s Rockford pro-am which he’s come to enjoy and a trip down to Mississipppi for the opposite field, True South Classic, on a course he’s come to enjoy. Still, it was an easy choice and one of the advantages of moving up the Tour food chain.

Steve Stricker had some surprising things to say about how he was feeling coming down the stretch. What happened?

It was different.  It was weird.  I don’t know if I was tired or what.  Wasn’t that I wasn’t focused and into it, I just didn’t feel that like something good was going to happen, you know.

Yeah, tried to hang in there.  I would hit some good irons and then run a putt over the edge, stuff like that.  Never really felt like I got a lot of momentum today.

And then from one of the best putters on the Tour:

Maybe I was trying too hard.  I don’t know.  I was trying to win the golf tournament.  I wasn’t worried about four in a row, I was just trying to win.

I think it’s the putter.  I really don’t have a ton of confidence with that putter.  I wasn’t feeling very good about it.  That’s the thing that you need to have working well to win.

This week it was hot and cold.  It was good at times and then not good some other times.  But it’s getting better.  I can see some improvement, but I still don’t feel very good over it.

How in the world could that be?

Yeah, I’ve had slumps like that that last pretty much all year.  I don’t know if it’s a focus thing because it was definitely better last two weeks for sure, and better this week than last week.

So I think it’s just paying a little bit more attention to what I’m doing and getting into the putt a little bit more.  You know, focusing a little bit more and going from there.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of going through the motions without really being invested in each putt.

Good putters descend into a level of calm, acute awareness just before they pull the trigger, a state that is pretty easy to drop out when your mind wanders.

As I write this, all the players and caddies are flying through the night on the John Deere charter to the British Open, another nice touch by the tournament sponsor.

Another week down, another new beginning.

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