Zach Johnson appreciates short, challenging Colonial


FORT WORTH, Texas – For all the right reasons the likes of Zach Johnson and Chris DiMarco have been typecast when it comes to cozy Colonial Country Club.

Like some ’80s sitcom star, they are comfort characters filling predictable parts. The tactician, the plodder, the fairways-and-greens specialist who prefer angles and positioning over pure power, the art and joy of shot making over the smash-and-grab ways of the modern game.

So as players set out into a two-club zephyr with a tumbleweed chaser the early leaderboard had a Groundhog Day feel to it with Johnson emerging as the clubhouse boss with a 6-under 64 and DiMarco in a large group two shots back.

Johnson hasn’t finished outside the top 10 at Colonial since 2006; he won here in 2010 and figured he actually played better last year, when he finished fourth and lost to eventual champion David Toms, perhaps the elder statesman of the species.

It’s not surprising then that when Johnson talks of Colonial it is in tones normally reserved for an accommodating friend.

“The holes that slope and go right to left like (No.) 3, the wind is in off the right. That's fantastic. There is a trap out there. I just got to peel it off or turn it off the trap and hit it,” gushed Johnson, who scorched Colonial without birdieing either of the layout’s two par 5s. “(No.) 2 is kind of down off the left and it's a left-to-right par 4. So you can fade it and just ride the wind. (No.) 5 today was nice. When that wind is left to right on 5, I just hit it down the left side and let it fall right . . .”

You get the idea, Colonial fits Johnson like an old plaid jacket.

In fact, some would say it’s a friend with far too few contemporaries and far too few cameos on Tour. For all the love showered on the likes of Colonial, Riviera and Harbour Town it’s a relatively exclusive genre among the play-for-pay set which survives most weeks on a steady diet of oversized ballparks with sprawling fairways.

“This is great because there’s not too many courses we play anymore that are under 7,000 yards and when you get here there’s not a huge advantage for the long hitters,” said DiMarco, who opened with a 4-under card. “I would love to see this every week.”

Even when Colonial officials embarked on a concerning nip/tuck in 2008 players braced the way one would if the Louvre were to suggest it was time for the Mona Lisa to be fitted with a mustache.

Officials stretched the Texas gem from 7,054 yards, which it had played since 2000, to 7,204 yards, and although some have suggested the changes ran off Phil Mickelson, who hasn’t played the event since 2010, what emerged from that makeover was a surprisingly subdued change, at least by architectural standards.

For Johnson and those of his ilk it is another testament to the agelessness of a course that has been hosting a Tour event since 1946.

“They haven't been built in the last 10 years,” said Johnson when asked what makes the rare shotmaker’s trifecta so special. “They facelifted Colonial three or four years ago. They didn't do much and they didn't need to and it's fantastic. Riviera, subtle changes, tremendous. Hilton Head, minimal changes, still awesome. They are ball-strikers’ golf courses. They are quality golf courses that don't need a whole lot.”

And Johnson’s praise is far from hollow hyperbole.

In 2011 Colonial ranked as the 22nd-toughest course on Tour, a spot behind Hilton Head and 12 spots adrift of No. 10 Riviera. Perhaps even more telling was a Golf Digest Tour player poll last year that featured all three courses ranked inside the top five – Harbour Town No. 2, Riviera No. 3 and Colonial fifth.

Even in Texas, where everything is bigger, short is not synonymous with substandard. 

“You got to hit it both directions, and I really think this golf course does separate the field; meaning if you are hitting it well and, obviously putting it well, you do rise somewhat to the top and vice versa. It will mangle you and tear you apart if you are a little bit off,” Johnson said. “I just think if it's fun golf, that's the way golf should be and it separates the field the way it should.  . . . I just love it.”

When it comes to Johnson and his kind the affection is mutual. Always is.