Zach Johnson: Playing With the Big Boys

By chance, I once played with a member here at Desert Mountain who, when he found out that I was a professional pursuing Monday qualifying on the Champions Tour, shared the following story.

He was playing the Geronimo course with another member when two fit players in their late thirties came up behind them on the par-5 15th. The members invited them to join up because the course was crowded enough that there was nowhere to go. The young men accepted, hopped onto the [original] gold tee and both of them launched beautiful, high-arching tee shots across the 225-yard ravine to the fairway on the other side.

“Wow!” he exclaimed. “That’s just like the big boys.”

“We are the big boys,” answered Ronnie Black, a Tour player now on the Champions Tour, playing with one of his Tour buddies whose name escapes me now.

The gulf between Tour players and good amateurs is as wide as that 225-yard ravine on Geronimo. So every time I get a chance to see those studies in contrast, I always come away marveling at just how good PGA Tour pros are. It’s one reason to watch the pro-ams in person; you get to see those contrasts, not only in the playing of the game, but in the way of being exuded by the pros.

For that same reason, I have always enjoyed David and Goliath pairings such as the one I wrote about in Phoenix where long-time journeyman, Ken Duke got in as an alternate and was rewarded with the marquee pairing of Fred Couples and the Tour’s latest new hot shot, Bud Cauley. My interest and the reason that I wrote about that one was because Duke did great, holding his own and just going about his business of getting his ball around the course.

This week’s, The Barclays on Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, New York, begins the four-tournament series of the PGA Tour playoffs leading ultimately to the the concurrent Tour Championship and the  FedExCup.

Since the emphasis is on the $10 million payday for the Cup, everything that happens these next four weeks is designed to draw attention to it and to make it distinctive. For example, the players are paired in order of their accumulated FedExCup points. Since it’s a 125-man field, they’ll play in threesomes this week and the marquee pairing is #1 Tiger Woods, #2 Jason Dufner and #3 Rory McIlroy. Wow. Hot ticket.

Except Dufner is taking the week off to rest up for the last three tournaments. So that brings #4 Zach Johnson into the fold.

Now, Zach Johnson is by no means a journeyman like Duke was (who by the way has gone on to have a great year reaching #42 in the Cup points and #44 on the Money List at $1.4 million). Johnson is a bona fide star in his own right with two wins this year (Colonial and John Deere), two 2nds and $4.1 million in winnings to show for it. And, uh, the 2007 Masters. So not chopped liver to be sure.

But he trails Tiger and Rory in a couple of significant areas. His average drive is 281.9 yards while Tiger is 296.9 (and he doesn’t routinely hit his driver) and McIlroy is 309.2, sixth longest on Tour. Tiger is 25th in Greens in Regulation, McIlroy 73rd and Johnson 102nd.

But he didn’t get where he is based on those stats, he got there based on his skill as a putter (3rd in Strokes Gained – Putting) and his tenacity as a player (7th in All Around). And he will bring all of himself to the show:

Playing with Tiger and Rory, I mean, obviously everybody is kind of fired up to see those two guys head‑to‑head.  Will you feel a little bit lost in the mix in that, and how do you fare when you play with Tiger?

I’ve played with both of them before, so that’s not going to be any surprise.  Two guys that you certainly can get caught up watching just because of the shots they can hit, shots they can hit that I can’t hit.  I’m just hoping my boring golf kind of gets in the way, and that’s really what it boils down to.  I like boring golf.  That’s kind of what butters my bread, so to speak.

But yeah, I mean, I guess it’s one of those situations where — I mean, I’m going to relish the opportunity because I think they’re two of the best players that I play with, certainly two of the better players that are playing right now in the world.

I guess if I wasn’t playing with them and I was working out or in my hotel, I’d probably be watching them on TV, so now I’ve got a firsthand watch.  I know the crowd will be pushing them quite heavily, and it’ll be fun.

And it will be fun for those of us interested in masterful performances in the face of daunting odds too. Although, already at 21st on the Career Money list with $25.9 million, the odds aren’t that long.

And Johnson is very aware of that.

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