Johnson relishes being an underdog


KAPALUA, Hawaii – The last time we saw Zach Johnson playing the 72nd hole of a golf tournament, it was a whirlwind of emotions inside a vortex of dramatics. In case your memory can’t travel back to a time before you ate that holiday fruitcake, here’s the scenario: Tied going into the final hole of last month’s Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, Johnson shanked – his word, not mine – an iron shot into the water hazard guarding the right side of the green. He then took a drop and from 58 yards holed a wedge shot for par to eventually force a playoff that he would win over none other than Tiger Woods.

By comparison, Monday’s foray to the final hole reflected the laid-back nature of this small-field event in an idyllic island paradise. Johnson led by two strokes when he reached the par-5 18th at the Plantation Course, then made a more routine par, reaching the green in three and two-putting before being bum-rushed by his three adorable kids. When Jordan Spieth failed to post eagle in the group behind, Johnson had clinched his 11th career PGA Tour title.

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A player with that many victories – including one at a little place called Augusta National Golf Club – doesn’t need much confidence-boosting, but even Johnson acknowledged that beating the world’s No. 1-ranked player head-to-head didn’t hurt morale as he entered the 2014 campaign.

“Anytime you beat the No. 1 player in the world or one of the best players to ever play or arguably in a field of that depth - I know it's only 18 deep, but talent wise - confidence comes from it,” he said. “Hopefully it breeds it and it breeds momentum.”

Johnson is all about momentum right now. He won the BMW Championship in his penultimate start of last season, compiled a 3-1-0 record for the United States at the Presidents Cup, then won the event known as Tiger’s tournament in the so-called offseason.

The title of World’s Hottest Golfer is a fleeting one. Just ask Adam Scott, who seemed to have a stranglehold on that position after nearly winning the Australian triple crown recently. It’s a purely subjective ordering, but one which should find Johnson currently atop it after this second straight win.

Not that he’ll enjoy being there.

Never the longest hitter nor the most talented player, Johnson relishes the underdog role. He identifies with being David against fields of Goliaths – even if this David prevails more frequently.

“I've always liked the teams and the individuals that are kind of coming from behind, that are not supposed to win,” he explained. “Those always intrigued me in sports. Competition intrigues me more than anything. But the competitive aspects of sport that really drive me are those situations where Wichita State makes the Final Four, you know? George Mason and Butler almost win a national title. I love that kind of stuff. I'm not a fan of them, but you catch my drift. I love seeing the underdogs.

“I'm not saying I'm always an underdog, but I kind of feel like it. If anything, I put myself in that posture where I feel like I'm an underdog.”

He’s certainly among the most overlooked stars in the game. Already a top-10 player before this win, he’s now five victories away from equaling Jim Furyk’s career and four away from that of Fred Couples. There aren’t many who would place Johnson in the World Golf Hall of Fame right now – and for good reason; he’s not worthy yet – but the 37-year-old said this week that he’s made a goal of winning 20 times, which would undoubtedly qualify.

This one might have happened no matter what. It might have happened if he never chased down Woods last month; it might have happened if he didn’t recover from the shank; it might have happened if he’d lost in the ensuing playoff.

We’ll never know. What we do know is that beating Woods in such fashion definitely didn’t hurt his confidence going forward.

“When you beat the No. 1 player in the world,” said his longtime caddie Damon Green, “it makes you a little more comfortable, I think.”

Johnson was the underdog that day, just as he was on this one at Kapalua, with major champions and big bombers and young studs also in contention. And that was just fine with him.

As he’s come to learn 11 times now in his career, David can still beat those so-called Goliaths.