Zach Johnson hopes to 'grind' out another British Open title

Cedar Rapids golfer tees off at 8:15 a.m. Thursday

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Garrett Johnston, correspondent

TROON, Scotland — Zach Johnson returns to the Open Championship looking to defend his title after last year’s magical breakthrough win at St. Andrews.

In a three-man playoff against Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman, Johnson came out on top, earning him the championship’s iconic claret jug and his second major title to go along with the Masters’ green jacket.

Johnson, wife Kim, and three young children all posed individually with the claret jug on Twitter, each of them pouting as they held the famous trophy.

Indeed all good things must come to an end and, Johnson, said he emotionally parted ways with the jug before he even left his home on St. Simons Island, Ga.

The 40-year-old gave the jug back to Royal & Ancient Chief Executive Martin Slumbers on Monday, just minutes before his news conference. And at the conference he was clear about some of the special places the cup went with him this past year.

“It’s been on the football field of Kinnick Stadium in my home state,” Johnson told an international audience of reporters. “That’s on the 50-yard line. That’s probably not normal. My guess is, unless I’m lucky enough to (win it) again, it probably won’t ever happen certainly in my lifetime.

“It was at my alma mater (Drake University). It’s been in my hometown a bunch with my foundation, at the club I grew up at.”

Indeed, Johnson has made the rounds with The Open’s trophy, but now it’s time to get back to business and compete for it once again with his fellow competitors.

Just like the U.S. Open, the British Open moves venues each year and this year it returns to Royal Troon in southwest Scotland. When the championship was last held at Troon in 2004, Johnson made his debut appearance in this event.

Though he didn’t make the cut, Johnson said that links golf made a lasting impression on him at the time.

“Since I played in this golf tournament, which was actually here (at Troon) was my first, my love for it was immense and immediate, and it’s my favorite to play,” Johnson said. “I mean, I just, I appreciate it, I love it. I think I’ve embraced it.”

Former Open champion and NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller also has noticed Johnson’s affinity for the British Open.

“It’s got to be perfect kind of golf for him,” Miller said in a conference call. “He’s got to love links golf, there’s no doubt about it. He’s not a guy that booms it in the air all the way there like even Justin Rose or Rory McIlroy or Jason Day. You don’t have to; in fact, in the wind, it’s preferable to hit the ball on the ground quick like Sir Nick Faldo used to do and just use the ground. I think that (Zach) is licking his chops.”

The conditions at Opens often feature significant wind and rain in some capacity. This week the weather is supposed to be calm and sunny on Thursday, but after that all bets are off as 20 mile-an-hour winds and rain are expected starting Friday.

But that’s just fine with the Cedar Rapids pro.

“I grind it out, I mud it out (in bad conditions), yeah,” Johnson said. “That’s all I know. Maybe it’s where I grew up in the sense that the weather’s not always terrific in Iowa.”

Johnson has five top 10 finishes in 2016 and brings good form coming into Troon, including a tie for eighth at last month’s U.S. Open and a tie for 10th at the Bridgestone Invitational two weeks ago.

But as he heads to the first tee with playing partners Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson at 8:15 a.m. on Thursday, he knows it all starts from square one, even for last year’s “Champion golfer of the year.”

“Last year was last year, and now we’re moving on and shifting on mentally and certainly excited for the week,” Johnson said.

Johnston is a sportswriter and video producer. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnstonGarrett

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