KAPALUA, Hawaii – Here are three signs an elite professional golfer is on top of his game:
1. He walks off the course disgusted with himself after failing to birdie any of the four par-5 holes during his round. “One of my goals every year is those par 5s,” he explains. “I'm a little bitter about that right now.”
2. He feels sick to his stomach after three-putting three times during the first 36 holes. “My goal this week was to not three‑putt,” he says. “I three‑putted three times. God, it sucks.”
3. Despite all of this, he is still the tournament leader by three strokes.
Welcome to Zach Johnson’s world. By his own admission, Johnson has been far from perfect over the opening two rounds of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. All of which should make his lead over this elite field even more impressive.
Only the best of the best – some guy named Tiger comes to mind – win these types of tournaments without their best stuff. And while Johnson hasn’t won anything yet, he’s winning so far with something less than his best.
That’s hardly the expected self-aggrandizement of a guy atop the leaderboard, not that Johnson practices that policy anyway. He’s never been a chest-beater, never one to gloat about his accomplishments, never one to celebrate himself.
After he defeated Woods at last month’s Northwestern Mutual World Challenge in thrilling fashion, Johnson celebrated by getting stuck in Atlanta for a night on his way back from the West Coast, then got home and went right back to business as usual by picking up his kids from school. So this was never going to be a guy doing an end zone dance in the scoring trailer after grabbing the lead.
But Johnson’s disapproval over a few major aspects of his game shouldn’t underscore the fact that he’s in position to win for a second time in as many starts – or that he’s doing it on a 7,411-yard course which doesn’t seem to suit his game, as evidenced by just one result better than 18th in six career starts.
“I'm just getting more and more comfortable here,” he explained. “I feel like I know how to prepare before I get here more than I am in the past. I take a lot of time off; I'm not afraid to do that, and I know when to get back it and I know what to do when I get here.”
It can be argued that the world’s uppermost echelon of players separate themselves from the rest based on the fact that they can win on any course, anywhere, anytime. It can similarly be argued that Johnson has vaulted himself into this uppermost echelon, proving once again this week that his game is suited to any venue.
Just don’t expect him to make that argument.
“No, I'm not,” he said. “If you're playing well, does it really matter where you play? Probably not. You know, to win golf tournaments out here, you've got to get good bounces; you've got to get putts that lip in.
“Saying that, there's a couple of tracks, a couple of venues, a couple of surfaces that I'm not overly comfortable with and I don't know if I'm completely eliminating them, but I've kind of got an idea as to when to play and when not to play.”
The truth is, the Plantation Course might be one of them if it didn’t also come with all the spoils of being a PGA Tour winner – the guaranteed paycheck and the trip to paradise among those, in no particular order.
And yet, Johnson’s longtime caddie, Damon Green, made the case after their round that for a player who once won the Masters by laying up on every single par-5 hole, this course may actually play right into his hands.
“He’s never had success here in the past, but we talked about it this week,” Green said. “There are a lot of wedges here, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. He’s hit his wedges decent the last two days, so he’s had a lot of tap-ins, which makes putting easier – or so I hear.”
Johnson still isn’t playing his best golf. Far from it, if you listen to him grumble about missed opportunities on the par 5s and a few agonizing three-putts. Those might sound like bad problems to have, but it’s the mark of an elite player who can win a tournament of this caliber with something less than his best stuff.
After two rounds, Johnson is already halfway there.