Exclusive with Zach Johnson – the last man to win The Open at St Andrews

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2015 Open champion Zach Johnson talks about overcoming the game’s power hitters and taking the Claret Jug to a waffle house…

Today’s Golfer’s 2022 Major coverage is brought to you in association with TaylorMade.

Golfers don’t get much, if any, tougher or more determined than Iowa’s favourite son, Zachary Harris Johnson, a man who achieved golfing fame, fortune and glory against all the odds.

The 46-year-old son of a chiropractor, Zach was a relatively late developer in the game – he didn’t turn pro until he was 22 and had to wait another six years before he made it onto the PGA Tour. Standing 5ft 11in, he was further handicapped by his lack of inches and stature which, in turn, led to a lack of yardage, particularly off the tee, where it mattered most. He couldn’t compete with the big hitters, but Johnson worked tirelessly on all other aspects of the game to compensate and his commitment, persistence and passion paid off. Big time.

One of the pluckiest players the game has ever produced has won two of golf’s biggest prizes – the 2007 Masters and 2015 Open – and in doing so became only the sixth player to win Majors at Augusta and St Andrews.

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He’s celebrated a dozen PGA Tour wins and made five Ryder Cup appearances. And after being appointed America’s next captain, he’s looking forward to leading the US into Ryder Cup battle in Rome next year. But not before he sits down with TG to reflect on his career to date…

Golf, for me, started at Elmcrest Country Club in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was aged 10 and the tree-lined course was a very demanding layout that meant you had to be accurate off the tee to avoid a number of well-placed water hazards on several holes.

I did other sports and had good skills, but my lack of size and speed kept me a bit behind the best kids in those other sports. To be honest, I’d rather have played other sports, but golf picked me. It offered a more level field and I made pretty good progress – I was No.2 on my high school golf team and helped them win the Iowa state championship in 1992. Two years later I enrolled at Drake University in Des Moines and we had a lot of success, winning three NCAA regional meets and two Missouri Valley championships. I wasn’t the best player on the team, but I kept getting better every year.

Zach Johnson has 12 PGA Tour titles to date

I turned pro in 1998 and played on the developmental tour circuit. I got my big break in 2003 when I topped the Nationwide Tour moneylist to get on the PGA Tour. Incredibly, a year later I was celebrating my first PGA Tour victory at the BellSouth Classic. All the hard work had paid off, although I never ever thought I’d go on to become a double Major champion. I’m kind of a grinder, an underdog who fights. I work hard, practise hard and I just see where it takes me.

I do see myself as an athlete, though. I’m a competitor, someone who just works really hard at trying to get better at golf. I feel like God gave me the ability to play a game. I try to take it very seriously, but I do realise it’s just a game.

Obviously, I didn’t – and still don’t – hit it as far as a lot of guys do. That means I have to be in the right spot in the fairway to score, and that means driving it well. The two biggest keys, for me, are to make a good transition and to keep my hands ahead of the clubhead through impact. I want to feel as if my swing is two swings… one going back and another coming down. Plus, my wedges have always been part of my arsenal… I’m not going to reach a par 5 in two shots, so that’s where I can make up some ground.

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I’m grateful to be playing golf for a living. It’s a beautiful game and I’ve come a long way in it. I’m a Christian guy – when it comes to my priorities, along with my family, my religion is No.1. Winning the 2007 Masters on Easter Sunday was a dream fulfilled, you couldn’t write it any better. But to win at Augusta and later The Open at St Andrews, that’s hard to put into words. Some people thought I’d make the PGA Tour, others that I’d win tournaments, play in Majors, contend in Majors, and win Majors. I thought they were crazy.

I still have to pinch myself that I’ve won not only The Open but the Masters too. Those are dreams come true though, to be honest, I’m not sure whether my dreams quite reached that far! Playing on the PGA Tour was obviously a goal and then establishing myself, but to have two Major championships achieved on arguably the most sacred grounds in golf, I never even dreamt of that and it’s sometimes hard to comprehend what I’ve done. But as a competitor and a golfer, I love knowing that I can compete in the most stressful, nerve-racking events and that my best can surface when it really needs to…

Zach Johnson wears the famous Green Jacket after winning the 2007 Masters

Winning The Open isn’t easy. Firstly, you have to embrace what the tournament is all about, meaning it’s the purest form of golf we play every year. I appreciate how the game was formed, how it was founded and invented. This is the way golf started and if you can fully embrace what it’s all about, you have an advantage immediately. The elements and conditions are what they are; the course might be green because there’s been a lot of rain or it might be brown because there hasn’t been much rain, plus the wind is usually up – days when it’s not are few and far between and you’ve got to take advantage of those. I love knowing that whatever Mother Nature decides to do, the golf course reflects that. Nothing is manipulated – it’s what Mother Nature and the golf course intended it to be.

But there’s more to it than that. Everybody talks about how you’ve got to hit it low and keep your ball near to the ground and, yeah, you’ve got to be an artist out there and create shots, but there’s a big ‘feel’ aspect too… and that probably doesn’t get the recognition it warrants. I love that you don’t have to change your game to play quality links golf; you can play your game and make it work.

Links golf also probably brings out the best – and sometimes the worst – in each player. It’s hard, it’s a different game that most Americans don’t play very often, probably only once or twice a year. But I love what it demands, particularly the mental aspect of it and certainly the athletic aspect of true links golf…

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The Open Championship is consistently the event that I look forward to the most every year, so when you couple that with the fact its back at St Andrews, it’s the 150th anniversary and it’s somewhere where I was fortunate to win at, my excitement and motivation for this year’s tournament is through the roof. I constantly get a chill just thinking about it…

Unfortunately, last summer I had to watch it from my parents’ basement because I had Covid. It was the first time I’d missed a Major championship, let alone The Open, since my rookie years, so that wasn’t very sweet. Obviously it was bitterly disappointing to miss out at Royal St George’s, but in the grand scale of things, considering the times we’ve been through and the difficulties people have faced, I was a lucky one.

There’s parts of that [victory] week, nearly seven years ago, that feels like it was yesterday. And there are some surreal moments that are hard to even describe. There’s a lot of vivid memories and specific things that I try to dwell and reflect upon, and I try to implement them every week. I haven’t watched it back in a while, but I’m not sure I need to as it was a week that I’ll never forget. But as we get closer to the event, I’ll probably get the DVD out again and replay some of the highlights.

Zach Johnson celebrates after holing a cruical putt at the 2015 Open Championship at St Andrews

It was certainly a very long and demanding week. I was fortunate because I finished my second round on Friday, many players weren’t so lucky. There was a flood delay on Thursday, then the winds picked up on Friday afternoon and into Saturday, so there was a massive wind delay and then they obviously postponed the round. So I didn’t hit a single shot on Saturday. I was staying at the Old Course Hotel with my wife and we watched a couple of movies and I worked out a couple of times. I also had a practice session with my caddie for about 45 minutes at about 9pm, when the wind had settled down. I was just trying to stay loose and ready. On Sunday it was pretty benign and you have to try to take advantage of those conditions, but I didn’t. At least I didn’t get off to a great start but, thankfully, I brought it in strong.

I got off to a very hot start in the final round on Monday. I think I was -7 after 12 holes after taking advantage of going out, because you were downwind on most of those holes. It was a case of being aggressive and putting the pedal down early, and then when I made the turn and was coming back in, I just had to hit solid shots and know that pars weren’t bad. I made a couple of bogeys, but birdied 18 for a 66 and I thought I had a chance of a play-off. That’s where my mind frame was and that’s what I prepared for. And obviously the rest is history…

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I had 30-40 minutes to get prepared for that play-off. I went to the range for 20 minutes to get warmed-up and then to the practice putting green by the 1st tee. Mentally, I was thinking like I was about to play another round. Just another round, another day. I got off to a hot start and birdied the 1st and the 2nd. Louis (Oosthuizen) birdied the 1st and Marc Leishman didn’t make a good start and was three shots behind me going onto the 17th, which is just an animal. We all made a good bogey, so I was still one up over Louis going into 18, where I missed my birdie putt and he just missed a 10-12 footer to keep the play-off going. It was a surreal moment…

I boarded a plane with my wife and a bunch of other players and we took off pretty quickly. My wife actually has a picture of me lying down, passed out in the aisle of the plane with the Claret Jug on top of me! When we went through customs at Jacksonville, Florida, about an hour from my home, I met up with a bunch of friends at about 4am at a waffle house, so I had the Claret Jug sitting on a table in a waffle house in the very early hours.

My wife has only been to two Opens, just the way it’s worked out, and that was one of them. To experience and share those moments with her was amazing. I love that thing [Claret Jug] and it would be amazing to carry it off again. My wife says when you have it, you relish it and soak it all in, and when you have to hand it over, you want it back so bad. Obviously, it’s one of the best trophies in golf and arguably in sport. It’s a very nice piece of silver.

Zach Johnson will captain Team USA at the 2023 Ryder Cup in Italy

The more I play the Old Course, the more my admiration grows. You can see how the course originally played – the opposite way around, back-to-front, if you like, and you can kinda see that with the way the green complexes are situated. There’s a lot of greens that slope back to front and the cliché at St Andrews is ‘make sure you stay left.’ There is some truth to that, but there’s more to it too… you can manage and play the course if you’re a little more aggressive to the left side pretty much on every hole, with a couple of exceptions.

I think it’s pretty darned cool that there’s only 11 greens. That’s a cool characteristic. Also, the beauty of St Andrews is the character it possesses – you’ve got some long holes, par 4s where you think you can drive this joker, and a great set of par 3s. The 17th certainly sticks out and the first time you play it you think, “What, I’ve got to hit it over that (the hotel)!” There are so many cool and awesome little elements to the Old Course, including sitting on a piece of land that sits in the middle of a fantastic golf town.

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I have doubts whether the big hitters will rip it apart. The Old Course has withstood the test of time. Whoever wins will need to be patient and stick to their game plan. That’s the beauty of St Andrews. At the end of the four days, the individual that claims the Claret Jug will be more than worthy, regardless of what the scorecard says.

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