When a relative unknown like Zach Johnson wins the Masters, as he did Sunday in shocking fashion over Tiger Woods, nobody knows exactly what to think.
In the past few days, the range of reactions to Johnson’s big win has been 360 degrees, from “the worst Masters ever” to “one of the most refreshing moments in golf history.” Go ahead, take your pick.
The one line that almost every reporter included in his final-round story from Augusta National was Johnson’s now-famous quote: “I’m just a normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.” In every way, that’s the 31-year-old Zach.
I first met Johnson at the 2003 Gila River Classic, when he was on his way to becoming the Nationwide Tour’s player of the year. I introduced myself on the putting green, told him I grew up in Iowa City, went to the University of Iowa, and proceeded to talk with him for the next 30 minutes about Hawkeye football with a few snippets about Johnson’s life mixed in.
During that conversation, Johnson expressed how he had grown up in Cedar Rapids, attended many Iowa games (just 30 minutes away), and how he had longed to be a Hawkeye. But given the state of his game back then — he was a late bloomer who played other sports — and size — he weighed 128 pounds soaking wet — Johnson had accepted a golf scholarship to Drake, a small college in Des Moines, Iowa.
Since Iowa was playing some pretty good football at the time, and never has had a golf program to speak of, we had a lot to talk about. But the one thing I noticed most while Johnson kept practicing 10-footers was that he rarely missed with this strange-looking SeeMore putter — the same relic he used at the Masters.
When we had finished with the interview, he thanked me and gave me his phone number in case I needed to reach him in the future. Yes, in an age when players on the PGA Tour seem to become more aloof by the tournament, Zach Johnson is, thankfully, just like he’s always been.
Take his reaction to being left off the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated in favor of the Masters runner-up, Woods.
“You know, that’s fine. Actually, it’s probably a good thing,” Johnson quipped about the snub.
Then there was the one minute of fame Monday night on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” when Johnson recited one of the more ridiculous top-10 lists ever. Hey, the best line was No. 2: “It’s a magical week. First I win the Masters, and then I get to tell lame jokes on a third-rate talk show.”
Asked if he felt a little used — a brief appearance and, “See ya!” – Johnson just smiled. “I don’t particularly care for the limelight at all,” he said, noting that the best part of the show for him was meeting its other guests, Senator Barack Obama and actress Halle Berry, who both asked Johnson for some golf tips.
“I was too tongue-tied,” he said of not being able to offer Berry any advice.
Actually, it’s not like Johnson has never been around a celebrity. One of his best friends is Kurt Warner, the Cardinals quarterback who Johnson played sports with at Cedar Rapids Regis High.
“Kurt was a much better athlete than I was,” said Johnson, who got a text message from Warner shortly after slipping into the green jacket. “I don’t think there’s any doubt some of the things we were taught and the upbringing we had probably got us where we are today.”
Remember, Iowa isn’t exactly a golf stronghold, but this week the state’s two largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette, each published special sections on Zach Johnson. I’ve never heard of a pro golfer being honored like that.
Iowa’s governor also called to congratulate Johnson and let him know that his golfing feat was the biggest deal in the “Tall Corn State” since another unknown Iowan, Jack Fleck, beat Ben Hogan in a playoff to win the 1955 U.S. Open.
Meanwhile, at Johnson’s home course, Elmcrest Country Club, where the members bought $500 shares in Johnson to help him get started, they have dedicated an entire room to his career (www.elmcrestcountryclub.com).
Additionally, Drake announced this week that its Web site,
www.drake.edu/alumni, has launched a new page: “Keep Track of Zach.”
I could say what all this means, but Johnson’s words say it best.
“Iowans take a lot of pride from fellow Iowans. It means a lot,” he told ESPN’s Dan Patrick. “I live in Florida now, but I love going back to Iowa. That’s where everything started.”