Johnson Lives Up to Pre-Season Hype

By Mercer BaggsNovember 2, 2004, 5:00 pm
04 Tour Championship by Coca-ColaIn just a few days time, Zach Johnson will no longer be a rookie on the PGA Tour. Hell sign his scorecard some time on Sunday ' hopefully, for his sake, in the late-evening hours, putting an official stamp on his first season on tour.
 
Johnson, however, hasnt felt like a rookie for quite some time.
 
Most first-timers are allowed certain anonymity when they arrive in the big league. They get to feel their way around this new professional life and acclimatize themselves, without the burden of outside expectation and unwarranted pressures.
 
But not Johnson.
 
Not when youre the reigning player of the year from the minor league. Not when youve set money records and scoring records and other statistical marks never before achieved at that level.
 
It was a little overwhelming at first, Johnson admitted. The transition (to the PGA Tour) was a half-a-step up from the Nationwide (tour), on the golf side of it. But what was the difficult part was there was a lot of extra stuff to deal with. There was a lot of attention my way, a lot of media exposure.
 
'Dont get me wrong, I'm not complaining ' I appreciate it, and I dont mind doing it. I appreciate the fact that people are interested in me. But it can be a little overwhelming.'
 
Countless profiles, multiple magazine covers, hundreds of questions ' all just part of being the early-season It guy.
 
All the hype started to wind down about April, and then
 
And then I won, he said, and it came back.
 
But when it came back, I was a bit more prepared.
 
In just his 13th career start on tour, Johnson captured the BellSouth Classic the week before the Masters Tournament.
 
Two months prior to his breakthrough performance in Atlanta, Johnson was on the practice range at the FBR Open in Phoenix, where he laid out his desired outline for the season: win; play in at least one major; qualify for the Tour Championship.
 
As he now looks back, he can put a checkmark by all three.
 
Johnson has made 29 starts this year ' including three major appearances (he didnt make the Masters field). In addition to his victory, he has a pair of top-3 finishes, and a total of five top-10s. All-in-all, hes pocketed $2,276,085; good enough to place him 18th on the money list and give him a return ticket to Atlanta for the season finale.
 
Ive accomplished goals, he says and then pauses. Lets say its been more positive than negative this year.
 
Ive got my specific goals each season: win; finish in the top 30; play in every major, he added. But the one that is the most important to me is: to improve.
 
Week in and week out, I just want to improve. Thats the big thing. I want to improve every week; thats my biggest goal every year.
 
It took six years, but Johnson finally improved enough to qualify for the PGA Tour in 2004.
 
After turning professional upon his graduation from Drake University in 1998, the Iowa native played the Prairie Golf Tour for two years.
 
He qualified for the Nationwide Tour in 2000, but his struggles sent him packing to the Hooters Tour in 2001 and 2002. There, he was the leading money winner in his first year, and second in his sophomore season.
 
With only partial status on the Nationwide Tour last year, Johnson proceeded to win twice, earn 11 top-10 finishes, make 19 of 20 cuts and set a single-season money record with $494,882.
 
And this year its only gotten better. He even purchased a motor home, which he and his wife, Kim, take to each and every tour stop ' even if they have to hire someone else to drive it.
 
Johnson said he was pleased overall with his continued improvement on the course this season. And well he should be. His numbers, aside from those that start with a dollar sign, werent as good as last year on the Nationwide Tour, but theyre very impressive for a guy playing in his first season at such an elite level.
 
Johnson ranks in the top 40 on tour in driving accuracy, greens hit in regulation, putting and scoring average. Hes outside the top 100 in driving distance, but is still averaging nearly 286 yards per measured pop.
 
He can hit it plenty far ' he averaged over 300 yards per drive a year ago, but scales it back for accuracy.
 
He may, however, unleash that power a little more next season, thanks to a new fitness regime.
 
Johnson said ' like most of the rest of us ' he tried to establish some sort of exercise program this year; he just didnt have the motivation ' the kind you get when youre actually paying for someone elses services.
 
I think in order to improve, its a matter of staying healthy and getting stronger, he said. 'There's only so much technology can do.
 
Having a set fitness routine would be very beneficial. I think if I pay somebody to (set his routine) Im not going to slack off. If I dont then Ill (work out), but not all the time.
 
When you give someone your money, it provides motivation.
 
Johnson will have plenty of time to test that motivation over the off-season. He only plans to play in the Korea Golf Challenge in late November and the Tommy Bahama Challenge on Jan. 1.
 
Other than that: Well go up north to visit family during Christmas and then head over to Hawaii a little early for the Mercedes. Thats about it, he said. Just taking it easy.
 
As for his game, any off-season changes will be physical, not mechanical for Johnson. He doesnt plan on making any major alterations in his swing. Thats because he and his teacher, Mike Bender, dont overhaul; they tune-up.
 
One thing I worked on, two, three years ago with my instructor is a foundation, Johnson said. When things go wrong I dont have to change anything. I can go back (to the foundation), take things apart and build them back up.
 
Theres just not much to take apart right now.
 
Johnsons rookie campaign has been a categorical success, and he expects ' as is his primary goal ' only to improve in 2005.
 
'I pretty much have the same goals for next year as this year. I still want to win, as much as I can, I still want to play in all of the majors, and I still want to make the Tour Championship,' he said. 'And I still want to keep getting better.'
 
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    Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

    By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

    Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

    The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

    "The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

    He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).


    Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship


    Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

    “Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

    Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

    Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

    Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

    The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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    McIlroy gets back on track

    By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

    There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

    He is well ahead of schedule.

    Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

    “Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

    To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

    And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


    Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


    After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

    Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

    “I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

    The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

    The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

    But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

    Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

    Everything in his life is lined up.

    Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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    Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

    By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

    Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

    Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

    There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


    Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


    Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

    The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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    Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

    By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

    Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

    Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

    It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


    Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


    Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

    While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.