Zach Johnson, Golf's Most Underrated Player, Gets His Due with British Open Win

Alex Dimond@alexdimondUK Lead WriterJuly 20, 2015

AP Images

ST ANDREWS, Scotland — Some players believe they are always destined for greatness, but many more never even dare to imagine achieving such success. For the longest time, Zach Johnson was very much in the latter category.

If you had tried to tell Johnson 15 years ago that he would eventually win both the Masters and The Open Championship during his career—a double that has eluded some of the greatest players ever—he believes you would have received a derisive answer.

"I would have said, 'Whose [jacket] am I trying on, and whose [Jug] am I touching?'" Johnson joked Monday as he sat there holding the Claret Jug that had been freshly inscribed with his name.

His green jacket, of course, already hangs in the Augusta National clubhouse. In the eight years since he won the Masters, Johnson's unassuming on-course demeanour and precise, unflashy playing style have seen him slip back into a sort of anonymity, but this win puts him in a bracket with the sport's most recognisable figures.

"I'm just a guy from Iowa that has been blessed with a talent," Johnson added. "And this game provides great opportunity."

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His two prized trophies will soon be united after the 39-year-old claimed the 2015 Open Championship with a play-off victory over Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman. He will be able to pair the two items for a photo, something only 13 players in the history of the game have previously been able to do.

"It's a feat just to be invited to those tournaments," Johnson added. "To win at Augusta and to win The Open Championship at St Andrews, it's hard to put it into words. I'm blessed. I'm humbled."

Johnson, who briefly shared the first-round lead on Thursday before slowly becoming lost in the shuffle of one of the most packed leaderboards in major championship history, shot a final-round 66 in windy and often wet conditions to set a daunting clubhouse target at 15 under par, a mark many players scrambled to surpass but only Oosthuizen and Leishman were ultimately able to match.

The trio were then sent out for a four-hole play-off, as Johnson birdied the opening two holes to again snatch the lead before watching on as Oosthuizen proved agonisingly unable to hole putts down the stretch to mount a comeback.

"I left myself a little bit too much to do," Oosthuizen said. "But that's how it goes, and congrats to Zach."

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 08:  Phil Mickelson presents Zach Johnson with the Masters green jacket after Johnson's two-stroke victory at The Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club on April 8, 2007 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The list of Masters and Open winners reads as a who's who of golfing royalty: Sarazen, Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, Faldo, Ballesteros, Woods, Mickelson...and now Johnson.

Those who lifted the Claret Jug at St Andrews makes for an even smaller list, previously comprising of just Snead, Nicklaus, Woods, Faldo and Ballesteros. Johnson mentioned earlier in the week that he often flew "under the radar," a comment that felt like a euphemism for being underrated or even disrespected.

If that was the case—and it probably was—it will be hard to do so now.

"I guess that radar is going bonkers right now," he agreed when asked to reflect further on those comments. "You know, I don't mind being in that position. When my game is good, certainly I surface on the radar. [But] I don't know if it's ever really beeping on me."

A second major victory always elevates a player into a new bracket in the golfing pantheon (to some extent, anyone can win one major, yet no "bad" player has ever claimed two), but the sheer prestige of Johnson's two victories forces a complete re-evaluation of his stock. The Iowa native now has 12 PGA Tour victories to his name, more than Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia or Adam Scott.

Those guys may have a few years in which to catch him, but Johnson's CV is nevertheless one most of his contemporaries would kill to possess.

Few ever pegged Johnson as a likely Masters champion until he put on a putting (and short game) masterclass on a brutally difficult week at Augusta eight years ago. His Open win feels similarly unlikely, with Johnson admitting earlier in the week it took him a few years to fully understand the particular demands of the championship.

He loved the challenge, however, and slowly began to understand the nuances, with top-10 finishes in 2012 and 2013 giving him an added confidence in his ability to compete. The 2012 experience was particularly informative, as he ended up playing alongside the eventual champion, Ernie Els, in that final round at Royal Lytham & St Annes.

"I got to witness what it takes to come from behind," Johnson recalled of that experience. "It was fun to witness...that was a couple days that stuck out there."

Peter Morrison/Associated Press

Three shots behind heading into Monday's action, he had every reason to believe anything was possible. Buoyed merely by being here this week—he considers the tournament his favourite of the year—Johnson was also just a putt away from getting into a play-off with Jordan Spieth and Tom Gillis at last week's John Deere Classic. He took that form and that positive feeling and built on it: Only two players hit more fairways than him all week in Fife, and only two players recorded more birdies.

He also averaged just 29 putts a round, a mark only beaten by Leishman, whose numbers were massaged by the fact he holed from off the green three times over the course of the event.

Fortune also favoured Johnson, as he was one of the players able to complete his second round on Friday, meaning he had the rare luxury of a mid-tournament break the following day. On that windy Saturday, he practised, worked out and relaxed as his rivals drained themselves waiting to play, coming back on Sunday and Monday in the perfect frame of mind to make his final assault.

Throughout the tournament, he recited a Bible verse—Psalms 24:17, "Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord"—that reminded him to stay in the moment and believe in his ability to execute his shots. It worked so well that he was still reciting it when Oosthuizen's putt to extend the play-off slid by, which caused him to need a few moments before realising the magnitude of what he had achieved.

"It was bunched going into today," Johnson said. "I felt like if I can get a little bit of momentum early on in the day, then who knows what's going to happen, and then I'm seven under through 12 holes or whatever it was.

"I played really solid and put myself in a position to make birdies and make a run. I can't deny I made some birdies. I knew the guys in front of me, those names, they're well-accomplished. They're champions. They were not going to back down."

ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND - JULY 20:  Zach Johnson of the United States celebrates with Jordan Spieth of the United States after winning the 144th Open Championship at The Old Course during a 4-hole playoff on July 20, 2015 in St Andrews, Scotland.  (Photo by
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In victory, he was magnanimous enough to recognise that any number of other players could have been sitting in his position but for a few bounces this way and that, with Oosthuizen the clearest example but Grand Slam-chaser Spieth also an obvious one.

Spieth's chances seemed to be over when he four-putted the eighth for a double bogey, but he showed brilliant resolve to come back into the frame down the stretch, his snaking birdie putt at the 16th electrifying the crowd. But in the end, the brutal difficulty of the 17th along with the pressure of needing to birdie the last proved narrowly too much for him, as he and playing partner Jason Day missed out on the playoff by a single shot.

Nevertheless, Spieth was among the first to congratulate Johnson moments after insisting to the press that he would now turn his attention to targets that remained achievable.

"I don't know how many guys have done three majors in a year," he added. "So that would be the next goal. Sights set on the PGA Championship."

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Instead of one historic feat, we got another. Johnson would not be denied; Spieth's charge had everyone watching, but it was Johnson who was setting the pace out on the course. He was the first to hit 15 under and then the first to reach 16 under, too. Everyone dropped shots down the stretch—"the course really showed its teeth," Oosthuizen agreed—which meant Johnson, playing ahead of the rest of the contenders, had the psychological advantage of setting the clubhouse target.

When he rolled in his 30-footer for birdie at the final hole of regulation, his caddie's celebratory dance told its own story. "I did all I can do," Johnson noted. "Fortunately, it went my way."

Then came the play-off and a chance to join the legends. "The rest is history," Johnson added. It was a second career-defining win, although the man himself did not see it that way.

"This isn't going to define me or my career, at least I hope it doesn't," he insisted. "It's not my legacy. Granted, as a professional athlete and as a golfer, I'm going to relish this. I'm going to savour this. But my legacy should be my kids, my family, that kind of thing."

That makes sense, but in terms of his golfing career, it will be impossible to look beyond his achievements. A Masters winner and an Open champion, Johnson has now won the two most prestigious prizes in the game. That is greatness, and it cannot be denied.

The most underrated man in golf can be ignored no longer.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.