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Cover Story

Drive to the top

6/11/2014

Photos courtesy of  IMPACT/JOE Photo

Photos courtesy of IMPACT/JOE Photo

Last December, Zach Johnson had just shanked his golf ball into the water on the 18th hole at the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge. Prior to the disastrous shot, he and Tiger Woods were locked in a tie and Woods, not one to blink on a golf course, appeared nearly certain to win his own charity event and its $1 million prize.

Playing from the drop zone 58 yards from the pin, Johnson sent the gallery into a frenzy when he holed the next shot, sent the tournament into sudden death and received a wry smile from Woods.

For those who follow golf, it was a surreal moment. And for those who don’t follow the sport, well, defeating Tiger Woods on a Sunday — especially in a playoff— is akin to dunking on Michael Jordan to win an NBA championship, besting Bill Clinton in a debate to win a presidential election, or picking off John Wayne in a Western movie shootout. Woods is 20-1 in PGA and European Tour playoffs.

But Johnson is a special golfer. The Cedar Rapids native and former Drake University star is quietly ascending to near-icon status in a state not known for producing PGA-level golfers.

Among the pantheon of great Iowa athletes, Zach Johnson has emerged as one of the greatest of all-time. At age 38, he still has perhaps a few decades to play and continue to amass victories, fortunes and good deeds through his charity foundation.

In 1999, Sports Illustrated listed the 50 greatest Iowa athletes of all-time. The top three were wrestling great Dan Gable, Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller and Hawkeye football legend Nile Kinnick. Others on the prestigious list included Jay Berwanger, who won the first Heisman Trophy; Mack Garner, who rode Cavalcade to a 1934 Kentucky Derby victory; and Elmer Layden, one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame who later coached the Irish squad and was the first commissioner of the NFL.

Also on the list at No. 12 was golfer Jack Fleck, a Davenport native who beat Ben Hogan in a playoff to win the 1955 U.S. Open. Fleck won two other tour events and has long been considered Iowa’s greatest golfer.

Johnson won the 2007 Masters Tournament and currently has 11 career PGA wins, 56 top-10 finishes, 122 top-25 finishes and more than $32 million in earnings on the PGA Tour.

It is clear that Johnson, through his success on the course and his family’s commitment to Iowa off the course, has become a special figure in Iowa athletics and in the golfing community.

Kurt Warner, Shawn Johnson and Zach Johnson at the 2013 Pro-Am Charity Tournament at Elmcrest Country Club.

Kurt Warner, Shawn Johnson and Zach Johnson at the 2013 Pro-Am Charity Tournament at Elmcrest Country Club.

Johnson was born in Iowa City in 1976 and grew up in nearby Cedar Rapids where he excelled at multiple sports before attending Drake University on a golf scholarship in 1994.

His parents, David and Julie Johnson, reside in Cedar Rapids and travel to watch their son play whenever they can.

“He always wanted to play with every kind of sports balls,” said David Johnson.  “When he was 2 years old, he would kick a Nerf ball soccer style for an hour and then shoot baskets with it for another hour.”

While growing up, Johnson played baseball, soccer, basketball and football but didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 10.

The Johnsons bought a membership at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids and shortly thereafter, club pro Larry Gladson put a golf club in Johnson’s hand, taught him how to swing, and the rest, they say, is history.

Johnson was recruited to Drake by golf coach Jamie Bermel, now the head coach at Kansas. Bermel said Johnson always believed he was a better golfer than the scores he was posting.

“He was never scared, and nothing seemed to faze him,” said Bermel.  “He was tenacious, a real Bulldog.”

Johnson had learned the game well at Elmcrest, a tight course with thick rough and plenty of trees and bunkers. The Country Club is now promoted as the “Home of Zach Johnson, PGA Tour Professional,” the city renamed the entry road “Zach Johnson Drive,” and it plays host to his annual “Zach Johnson Foundation” charity event.

There’s no place like Elmcrest

After graduating from Drake in 1998, Johnson wanted to continue playing competitively. He told Bermel that he would keep playing “until I stop improving.” The Elmcrest staff found a way to free Johnson from financial constraints so he could focus entirely on golf.

Friends became “investors” who bought $500 shares in Johnson. The idea was to raise the money necessary to cover tournament entry fees, travel and living expenses. If he did well, they would get their money back and perhaps a return on their investment.

But Johnson’s Elmcrest friends were not in it for the money.

“They wanted to help a young man chase his dream,” said Gladson.

The plan worked beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Johnson played on the Prairie Tour, the Dakota Swing, the Iowa Swing and the Hooter’s Tour, progressing as he went. Gladson said Johnson seemed to raise his game to whatever new level he was playing.

“He was a wonderful kid and just got better at golf every year,” he said.

Johnson’s success continued to compound, culminating in his winning the prestigious Nationwide Tour in 2003, the Triple-A league for professional golf.  He was the Tour’s Player of the Year and leading money winner, punching his ticket to play on the PGA Tour.

Along the way, Johnson put together a strong supporting cast team that includes swing coach Mike Bender, caddie Damon Green and agent Brad Buffoni.

Transamerica/AEGON was Johnson’s first sponsor when he joined the Tour in 2004 with added support since from John Deere, Country Inns and Suites by Carlson, Titleist, FootJoy, McGladrey, Oakley, BMW and NetJets.

West Des Moines insurance executive Mike McCoy is an 11-time Iowa Amateur Player of the Year. Johnson competed in some of those amateur events as he rose through the ranks.  McCoy says Johnson “is a testament to persistence and tenacity. He may have been a late bloomer but he kept battling to improve.”

McCoy qualified to play in this year’s Masters Tournament by winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. With his son, former ISU golf standout Nate McCoy, on the bag, Mike played a practice round with Johnson at Augusta, Georgia, the site of the prestigious tournament.

“He’s one heck of a guy,” said McCoy. “He’s got his priorities right, and he is a great representative for Iowa golf.”

Foundation for success

Johnson moved to Florida shortly after college to play year round. It was there where he met his future wife, Kim. They now reside in St. Simons, Georgia, with their three children Will, Wyatt and Abby Jane.

Johnson’s success has allowed the couple to create the Zach Johnson Foundation, which has a specific focus on children in the Greater Cedar Rapids area. Working with the United Way of Eastern Iowa and the Cedar Rapids Community School District, the Foundation’s priority is helping children from two elementary schools on their journey to adulthood.

The  Zach Johnson Foundation works with the United Way of Eastern Iowa and the Cedar Rapids Community School District to help children from elementary schools on their journey to adulthood, providing mentors, vision screening and glasses, winter coasts and boots, and transportation assistance.

The Zach Johnson Foundation works with the United Way of Eastern Iowa and the Cedar Rapids Community School District to help children from elementary schools on their journey to adulthood, providing mentors, vision screening and glasses, winter coasts and boots, and transportation assistance.

The Foundation aims to break down barriers to student learning by providing mentors, vision screening and glasses, winter coats and boots, and transportation assistance. Another focus is family engagement with academic parent-teacher teams, home visits and family events at the YMCA. The Foundation enrichment endeavors include various sports, dance, ceramics, yoga, reading clubs and college visits. In support of student learning, the Foundation created reading programs, summer camps and after-school tutoring.

Local businessman Pat Cobb is the Foundation Chair.

“Zach and Kim are incredibly engaged in the Foundation,” said Cobb. “They attend all the board meetings and visit the schools.”

Cobb and others are seeing the success of the Foundation’s work, and he believes the long-term efforts will allow many of the children to attend college one day.

Johnson’s annual Pro-Am Charity Tournament will be held July 7 at Elmcrest Country Club with as many as 15 PGA players, more than 300 volunteers and a fundraising gala. Last year fellow Iowa athletes Kurt Warner and Shawn Johnson were headliners at the event.

Playing among the greatest

Johnson was awarded the Jack Nicklaus Trophy for winning the Nationwide Tour in 2003 and was invited to play at the 2004 Memorial Tournament, Nicklaus’ charity PGA event held at the course Jack designed in Muirfield, Ohio. As a rookie, he found himself paired with the legendary golfer for the first two rounds. Bermel said that after the first hole Johnson asked the legend, “What would you like me to call you, Mr. Nicklaus?” and the response was, “Jack would be fine.”

Nearly 10 years later, Johnson was trailing Woods by four strokes after the 10th hole at the Northwestern, but Johnson birdied 11, 12, 16 and 17 to pull even. The look by Woods after Johnson holed his shot was a rare display of humbleness and respect.  Afterwards, Woods told reporters it was “pretty impressive what he did. He got me.”

Rarely do golf viewers get to hear Tiger crediting someone else for defeating him. But Johnson and Woods seem to have developed a respectful friendship. They have been teammates on six Ryder and Presidents Cup events and seem to enjoy being paired together on a course.

The 2013 Zach attack

Johnson’s December playoff victory over Woods came on the heels of one of the best runs by a golfer in recent memory. From July through December of 2013, Johnson tallied a victory at the John Deere Classic, a sixth-place finish at the (British) Open Championship, a tie for fourth at the World Golf Championship, an eighth-place finish at the PGA Tournament, a tie for fifth at Wyndham, a victory at the BMW Championship, and a seventh-place finish at the Tournament Championship. He then helped the U.S. team win the President’s Cup and closed out the year with the victory at Woods’ charity event.

Johnson started 2014 where he left off by winning the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, secured an eighth-place finish at the Sony Classic and a third-place showing at the Humana Challenge.

Johnson is one of only 27 golfers who have shot a round of 60 in a PGA Tour event. And only he and Phil Mickelson have done it twice. Johnson carded a 31-29 on the third round of the 2007 Tour Championship and signed a 30-30 card on his way to victory at the 2009 Valero Texas Open.

Since he hit the tour in 2004, only Woods, Mickelson and Vijay Singh have more tour wins. Johnson has more victories than many notable golf figures, including Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson. Donald and McIlroy have both been ranked No. 1 in the world, and the current No. 1 player is Adam Scott who, like Johnson, has 11 tour wins.

The next major

Getting a second major would be a significant accomplishment. Only 44 golfers in history have won two majors, only 23 have won three, and only 14 have won four or more. It’s an imposing list, filled with Hagen and Hogan; Palmer and Player; Bobby and Sam; and, of course Jack and Tiger.

CVA_12 PAGE 19This weekend’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina is the second of this year’s four majors. The (British) Open Championship is in July at Royal Liverpool in England, and the PGA Championship is at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, in August.

This year’s Masters Tournament was a disappointment to Johnson, who was playing as well as any golfer in the world heading into Augusta. So well, in fact, that Sports Illustrated writer Gary Van Sickle predicted a second green jacket for him.

“The winner (will be) a guy who has played his best golf the last few years and gets no respect because he’s not a basher — Zach Johnson,” he said.

But Johnson was overcome by pollen while playing, couldn’t recover in time and missed the cut.

Still, Gladson, the man who first put a club in his hands, says Johnson’s game is at such a high level that he can win any major or any event on any course. Johnson has finished in the top 10 at the last two (British) Open Championships and has two top 10 finishes over the last four PGA Championships. A top finish has eluded him at the U.S. Open thus far, however.

Just a normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Back at Elmcrest, the clubhouse is adorned with memorabilia from Johnson’s career and includes a restaurant called “Zach’s” and a video highlight display. On one reel, Johnson talked about his high school and college career, saying, “I was never the stud on my golf teams.” While that part has certainly changed, Johnson himself hasn’t.

“I’m Zach Johnson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” he told reporters after winning the Masters. “That’s about it. I’m a normal guy.” CV      

James Strohman is a writer from Ames, Iowa. He can be reached at strohman@iastate.edu.

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