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This was supposed to be the year Zach Johnson brought soup, salad and breadsticks to your table at a chain restaurant.
Rick Reilly, the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year, said this on Dan Patrick’s radio show not long after Johnson won the 2007 Masters:
“I think Zach Johnson — in 10 years — has a real chance to be your server at Olive Garden.”
Reilly gave his mea culpa long ago. While in Johnson’s Cedar Rapids hometown in 2009 to host an ESPN show about Kurt Warner, Reilly said “Of course, it turned out to be the dumbest comment in the history of golf commentary.
“Good for him. He shut me up.”
As time has passed, Johnson’s victory at Augusta has gone from being a huge surprise to simply a championship performance from a world-class player. Johnson himself never defined himself by what happened for four unseasonably cold and blustery days in Georgia, and stacked a whole lot more on his resume in the decade that followed.
When he is at the first tee at Augusta National Thursday, his mind will be on 2017, not 2007. Yes, this week marks the 10th anniversary of Johnson’s Masters championship, a milestone to savor. But ...
“I’ve never really looked at things that way,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview. “This is another opportunity to play in the Masters tournament.”
All he will think about as he is introduced is landing his tee shot on the fairway and giving himself a chance to birdie Augusta’s difficult first hole.
Unexciting? Yes. That’s how Johnson’s playing style has been described. That’s how he describes it, with pride.
“I’m known as a gritty player, a grinder more or less,” Johnson said. “I like to grind it out. I like being that underdog.”
Reilly wasn’t the only national media person in Augusta 10 years ago who moaned about a lack of star power from the new champion. But Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame who has covered the Masters for over six decades and has never been shy to hurl barbs, saw things differently in his essay for Golf Digest.
“There is strong evidence to suggest that we shall be seeing more of him,” Jenkins wrote. “That he won’t go away. That he has the game, in fact, to win more majors.
“Why? Because he can do two things: He can drive it straight, which keeps him in play, and he can putt, which puts daggers in all the hearts around him.”
That was rather prescient.
Johnson, 41, has remained viable in pro golf 10 years after that enormous sudden splash of global glory. He has won 10 PGA Tour events since the ‘07 Masters, with victories in eight different years over that time. The latest was a whopper, the 2015 British Open.
Last year, he was a member of the United States’ victorious Ryder Cup team. It was his ninth berth on a Ryder or Presidents Cup squad.
He wasn’t obscure in golf when he won at Augusta, but it was just Johnson’s second PGA Tour win. While a few Masters winners since ’07 have done little winning since — Trevor Immelman won in 2008 and hasn’t won a Tour event since — Johnson has gotten consistently good results over the years.
His most-recent tourney was the 64-player World Golf Championships match play event. He tied for ninth-place. It took the world’s No. 1 player (Dustin Johnson) to eliminate him.
Asked how he thinks his career will be judged, he said “It’s hard to say. I know history shows how many major championships you’ve won. My guess is somebody will look at the Cups I’ve participated in.
“But that’s not the only story. There’s the consistency with which I’ve approached the game year after year. I may have had valleys, but they were short and not very deep.”
Being regarded as a player who never seems to buckle when he’s in contention, and who has been an asset to U.S. teams in pressure-filled international competitions forged a clear and complimentary image of Johnson in golf.
Unlike 10 years ago, when fans and media alike took a crash course in Johnson’s biography after he shot a final-round 69 to win the Masters by two shots, he now is a familiar face.
Nonetheless, his story remains an unlikely one. The player who wasn’t No. 1 on his Regis High School or Drake University teams started on mini-tours as a pro. He played his way onto the PGA Tour, and won a tourney as a Tour rookie in 2004.
Three years later, in his third Masters appearance, Johnson birdied three of the final six holes in Sunday’s final round. He was presented the ceremonial green jacket by the previous year’s champion, Phil Mickelson, and told the planet this:
“I’m Zach Johnson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” he said. “That’s about it. I’m a normal guy.”
As a person, sure. As a pro golfer, not at all. Normal guys don’t win at both Augusta and St. Andrews.
Two summers ago, Johnson made a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at St. Andrews that got him into a British Open playoff with Marc Leishman and Louis Oosthuizen. Johnson opened the four-hole aggregate playoff with two birdies on his way to his second major championship.
He has finished in the top 16 of the British in five of the last six years. The Masters has been a different story. He has just one other Top Ten there since his win, a tie for ninth two years ago. When he won in 2007, his putting and short game were utterly magnificent.
“More than anything, I’ve got to putt well there, no question,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to do everything well. There’s not an aspect of my game that can be lagging behind. Chipping, pitching, certainly putting, are paramount there. There’s a time to be aggressive and a time to be conservative. You have to figure out when those spots are.”
If you had a dollar for every time Johnson has figured things out in golf, you could afford the annual membership dues at Augusta National.
In the meantime, should you go to an Olive Garden and have a male server who looks to be about 41, rest assured it isn’t someone who won a Masters 10 years ago.