CORONAVIRUS

Zach Johnson and fellow PGA Tour players could - could - go back to work in June

Cedar Rapids native/12-time Tour winner "champing at bit" to play, but "I'm also a realist"

Zach Johnson signs autographs for fans at the 9th Annual Zach Johnson Foundation Classic at Elmcrest Country Club in Ced
Zach Johnson signs autographs for fans at the 9th Annual Zach Johnson Foundation Classic at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids on Monday, July 8, 2019. The annual golf tournament raises funds for Johnson's local charity, Kids on Course. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

For now, the PGA Tour is the first sports carrot at the end of the stick.

Last week, the Tour announced it plans to resume play June 11-14 at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. That and tourneys the following three weeks in South Carolina, Connecticut and Michigan, will be held without fans.

The fifth post-interruption tourney is the John Deere Classic in the Quad Cities on July 9-12. Perhaps no JDC in its 50-year history would be as anticipated as this year’s — other than perhaps than the one in 1996 when new pro Tiger Woods led after 54 holes. With no Open Championship the week after the JDC as is usually the case, and with top players presumably hungry to play, the JDC may welcome stars it doesn’t usually attract.

Will any of this happen? Obviously, Zach Johnson hopes so. The Cedar Rapids native and 12-time winner of Tour events wants to play again, sooner rather than later.

“I think our sport is better suited to return than any, outside on a huge acreage,” Johnson said from Sea Island, Ga. “We don’t have to have fans.”

If the Tour comes back in June as planned, it will be a big deal. Any live sport on television will be embraced enthusiastically, and team sports in the U.S. have no return dates for now.

“I hope golf’s part of that,” Johnson said. “I think we can be a positive influence for people, entertainment. Everybody has different taste buds, but this could be something that reminds them of normalcy.”

Late April is a long way from mid-June when it comes to the COVID-19 situation. Measures for staging golf tournaments and keeping everyone necessary involved safe have to be firmly in place.

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“I hope to go back,” Johnson said, “but at the same time, I’m also a realist. There are still a lot of things that need to be done.

“When that time comes, I’ve got to be ready.”

Johnson is used to the routines and rhythms of a competitor at the highest level of his sport. He’s the first to insist he has no problems compared to so many in the world, saying “A lot of people can’t work and I work just hitting a golf ball.

“Sports are such a unifying thing and can really essentially find the best in people and communities, but this also puts sports in perspective. So many other things are more important.”

Besides helping his wife, Kim, take care of their three children, Johnson’s work has involved practicing and staying in shape.

“If anything, I’ve been extremely busy,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to find some positives in this break. I’ve been working out a lot. My body has to be my first priority before I practice.”

So many things are on hold right now, including the annual Zach Johnson Foundation Classic. The 10th edition of the annual event is scheduled for July 27 at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids. Last year’s ZJFC raised $1.1 million for Kids on Course, the foundation’s program developed in coordination with several Cedar Rapids Community School District schools.

It serves over 1,000 in-need students, with the stated goal to close the opportunity gap, eliminate barriers, engage families, support learning and enrich lives.

“So much is involved there,” Johnson said. “Our program relies on funds each and every year to keep going. The program is mushrooming, therefore the budget is mushrooming.

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“I’m in constant contact with my board. We’re trying to formulate new strategies. It’s a difficult situation of late, but it’s difficult for everybody.”

In the meantime, there could be pro golf again in less than two months.

“I’ll be champing at the bit to play and compete,” said Johnson. “But we have to be very sensitive as a sports entity. We need to keep our priorities in check.

“We are a charitable organization. The core of the PGA Tour is giving back. It’s my desire to make that even more of a priority, but it’s always been a priority. We can still be very giving and stewards of the community.”

Comments: mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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