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He's Got Game Blessed with a hearty appetite for competition, rookie Zach Johnson has wasted little time showing he means business on the PGA Tour

June 15, 2004
June 15, 2004

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June 15, 2004

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He's Got Game Blessed with a hearty appetite for competition, rookie Zach Johnson has wasted little time showing he means business on the PGA Tour

Zach can play. Zach can play just about anything. Growing up in
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Zach Johnson glided from sport to sport,
excelling at all of them. He was a Little League stalwart and the
starting wide receiver on his seventh-grade football team despite
weighing less than 100 pounds. As a senior at Regis High he earned
all-city honors as a left wing on the soccer team--not bad
considering that he hadn't gone out for the team as a sophomore or
junior, choosing instead to concentrate on golf. Naturally, the
Royals' golf team won the state championship his sophomore year.
During the summers he found time to compete in tennis tournaments
at a nearby country club.

This is an article from the June 15, 2004 issue

Johnson's competitive jones followed him beyond Cedar Rapids. While
on a golf and academic scholarship at Drake he won a campuswide
three-point-shooting contest, canning 19 of 25 from beyond the arc.
Skiing? These days he prefers the rigors of Vail. Board games? Zach
claims to be undefeated in Boggle, a high-octane descendant of
Scrabble that he and his wife, Kim, play on every road trip. Kim
disputes her husband's Boggle record. Sort of. "If we're playing to
20 and I get there first, then he says the game's to 30," she says.
"If I get 30 first, then we're playing to 40...." To finally quell
this long-running grievance, the Johnsons have recently begun
keeping tally in a first-one-to-1,000 game, which should take just
about the rest of the season. They lug a dictionary with them to
settle their frequent dustups over Zach's propensity for inventing
words.

Running is the only form of competition that Johnson isn't serious
about, which is a good thing because that's the domain of his kid
sister, Maria, the best athlete in the family. When she was in high
school, Maria made it to the Iowa state finals four straight years
in the 400 meters, with a personal best of 57.2 seconds. She was
also an all-state point guard and an all-conference outside hitter
in volleyball. Of course, Zach has spent years trying to badger her
into a 40-yard race. "No way she beats me," he says earnestly.

For all his myriad interests, Johnson, 28, has focused his athletic
gifts and competitive spirit on golf. The stakes may be higher and
the stage grander, but he is enjoying his usual success. Anyone who
was surprised when Johnson won this year's BellSouth Classic in
only the ninth start of his rookie season wasn't paying attention.
His short professional career has been marked by steady improvement
and spectacular achievement.

After earning a college degree in business management and
marketing, Johnson turned pro in 1998. Then, year by year, he
zoomed through golf's minor leagues. On the mini Prairie tour, in
'99, he won twice and was third on the money list. On the mid-level
Hooters tour, in 2001, Johnson ended the season with a
three-tournament winning streak, propelling him to the top of the
money list. Last year he earned his spot on the PGA Tour with the
greatest season in Nationwide tour history, finishing with two
victories and 11 top 10s, while setting records for scoring average
(68.97) and money earned ($494,882). Johnson's stats were so
impressive--he led the Nationwide in putting and was fifth in total
driving--that in the off-season caddie Damon Green ditched his
human ATM, 11-time Tour winner Scott Hoch, to take up with Johnson.
Says Green, who knew Johnson from the golf scene north of Orlando,
where Zach lives, "I'd hate to have let a future superstar fly by
me."

Johnson has justified that kind of talk with what has already been
a extraordinary first year on Tour. He has five top 20 finishes in
addition to the win at the BellSouth, powering him to 17th on the
money list ($1.38 million) and a commanding lead in the rookie of
the year race. Most freshmen hope just to keep their cards. At the
beginning of the year Johnson's lofty goals included winning a
tournament and qualifying for the Tour Championship. Having
accomplished the former and well on his way to the latter, Johnson
can now get greedy, training more of his attention on the upcoming
major championships. Although next week's U.S. Open will be the
first major of his nascent career, he has to rate as at least a
dark horse. Johnson is a great driver of the ball and a deadeye on
the greens, but it is his controlled, calculating course management
that may be his greatest asset. In other words the rigors of our
national championship are tailor-made for his game.

"I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about that," Johnson said
the other day, screeching around his adopted hometown of Lake Mary,
an Orlando suburb, in his souped-up BMW M3. (Johnson drives with a
lead-footed impunity that's only possible when your father-in-law
is a well-connected former Florida state trooper.)

Says his friend and mentor, Chris DiMarco, "Zach's potential is
unlimited, man. The guy's the real deal. You can see the confidence
coming out of him. He feels as if he can win every time he tees it
up, and you know what? He can."

Johnson's outlook was shaped by his father, Dave, a Cedar Rapids
chiropractor who was the best kind of Little League dad. "He lived
through us, but in a good way," says Maria, 22, who recently
graduated from Northern Iowa and is living with Zach and Kim this
summer while she interns at Florida Hospital in the sports-medicine
and rehabilitation department. "He wanted us to do our best." Some
dedicated dads never miss a game. Dave Johnson used to sneak away
from the office to watch practices. For fun. As Zach's golf career
has progressed, friends and family have grown accustomed to his
father's blurting from the gallery, "I taught him that." Zach had
this catchphrase embroidered on the back of a cap and gave it to
the old man as a mock gift a couple of Christmases ago.

All three Johnson kids have been imbued with their father's zeal.
Zach and Gabriel, the middle child who was an all-conference golfer
at Division III Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, spent much of
their youth around the Ping-Pong table in the basement, engaged in
best-of-11 battles royal. "We would stand five feet behind the
table and go at it like Sampras and Agassi," says Gabriel, 25, a
marketing coordinator for an engineering firm in Aurora, Ill. Adds
Dave, "Those games usually ended up with them rolling around on the
ground, fighting about something."

A strong bond existed among Zach's "extended family" at Elmcrest
Golf and Country Club, where he learned to play the game. When he
set out on his pro career, the members formed a syndicate to help
him cover travel expenses. Shares were sold for $500 apiece--Dave
bought eight--and about $25,000 was raised to get Zach started.
(Zach repaid the investment, with interest, out of his earnings.)

Johnson's support group added its key member in 1999, when he met
Kim, a native of Amelia Island, Fla. She had graduated with a
criminology specialization from Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.,
and had recently taken a job consulting the Orlando police
department about designing and implementing crime-prevention
programs in low-income neighborhoods. She lived in the same
apartment complex as Zach, who was holed up with five other
mini-tour grinders in a three-bedroom pad. Kim and her friends
couldn't help but notice the polite, clean-cut young men coming and
going, but their paths never crossed. Finally one afternoon, when
the boys were tossing around a football, Kim stuffed a half-full
box of Cheerios into a garbage bag, giving her an excuse to head
out to the parking lot. After picking off an errant pass, she fell
into conversation with Zach. Afterward, says Kim, "I called my
roommate and said, `We're going out with the golfers Friday night,
and I've got dibs on the one named Zach.' Those dimples stole my
heart. The personality kicked in later."

Married in February 2003, they have grown into what Kim calls a
"young old couple." Their downtime is dominated by board games,
weekly Bible study and trips to the movies. (They're pop culture
buffs who have a weakness for celebrity magazines like US Weekly.)
Zach is a down-to-earth Hawkeye, and if he has shown any
inclination to change, Kim keeps him grounded. "People ask if
success will change Zach," she says. "I won't let it."

Following his Nationwide tour victory at the 2003 Rheem Classic in
Fort Smith, Ark., Zach was asked to make an appearance at a Sunday
night volunteer party. "He was tired and hungry, and we had a long
drive, and he wanted to get out of there," says Kim. "I told him,
`Zach, you're going to go to that party, and you're going to shake
every hand and sign every autograph, and you're going to pretend
you're having the time of your life.' And that's what he did."

The intensity of Tour life has brought its own challenges this
year. "It's been a little crazy, but a good crazy," Zach says. Yet,
padding around in shorts and flip-flops in his modest house in
middle-class Lake Mary, Johnson couldn't seem more at ease. There
are only a few traces of his golf success here--a trophy placed
discreetly on a dresser, boxes of his trading cards sharing counter
space with Pizza Hut coupons. (It took Johnson about eight hours to
sign all 2,000 cards.) Lazily eyeing the telecast of the recent
FedEx St. Jude Classic, Johnson gave shout-outs to his fellow
mini-tour warriors who have reached the big time. His allegiances
run deep. Although he's long been a Florida resident, Johnson still
insists on being introduced on the 1st tee as hailing from Cedar
Rapids. He is proud to carry on his shoulders the hopes of a state
that has produced only two other Tour winners--Jack Rule (three
victories in the mid-1960s) and Steve Spray (the '69 San Francisco
Open).

Johnson is, in fact, a rabid Iowa Hawkeyes booster, the kind of fan
who pays money to various subscription services to keep tabs on
basketball and football recruiting news. And he is thrilled by the
rumor, which surfaced in the wake of his BellSouth win, that Iowa
basketball coach Steve Alford would ask him to address the team
sometime this coming season. (Johnson was also touched to receive
letters from his first-, second-, third- and fourth-grade
teachers.)

Unfortunately for Johnson his victory came the week before the
Masters, and thus his bump on the money list came too late to earn
him a ticket to Augusta. Instead, he parked himself in front of the
tube and enjoyed the tournament as a fan. "I called him on Sunday,
and he was totally into it," says Gabriel.

Zach is nothing more than a nice Mid-western boy, the kind of
athlete you love to root for. Unless you have to play against him.
In anything. When he and Kim offered to demonstrate the finer
points of Boggle, it wasn't long before Kim became irritated that
Zach was behaving unusually well, trying to impress his audience.

"Play normal," she said.

"You mean win?"

"No, I mean make up words and be obnoxious."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES OH, BROTHER His instincts honed on a lifetime of sibling rivalries, Johnson cuts his sister, Maria, no slack in a game of hoops at his Orlando house.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERGCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES WORD PLAY Zach and Kim spend much of their time on the road engaged in a seasonlong Boggle death match.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN OPEN SECRET With his straight driving and superb putting, Johnson could win at Shinnecock in his first career major.
Zach's Potential is unlimited, man," says friend and mentor Chris
DiMarco. "He feels as if he can win every time he tees it up, and
you know what? He can."
Caddie Damon Green ditched 11-time Tour winner Scott Hoch, to take
up with Johnson last winter. Says Green, "I'd hate to have let a
future superstar fly by me."