LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Zach Johnson isn’t one to be bogged down with rankings and projections, not even in this FedEx Cup era of up-to-the-second updates.
When he skipped the opening playoff event, The Barclays, to be the best man in his brother’s wedding, he didn’t know it would so greatly jeopardize his playoff chances.
And so this week, Johnson didn’t stare at the massive electronic leaderboards and run through various scenarios. He kept his head down, as is his wont, and now finds himself with a very simple equation heading into Atlanta, one even he can comprehend:
Win, and you collect a $10 million bonus.
On Monday, Johnson shot a bogey-free 65 to rally from three shots back to win the weather-delayed BMW Championship. At 16-under 268, he was two shots clear of Nick Watney (64) and three ahead of 54-hole leader Jim Furyk (71).
The $1.44 million first-place paycheck moves Johnson from No. 27 to No. 4 in the FedEx Cup standings, and now he has a clear shot at an even more lucrative prize.
“This week provided me a great opportunity for next week,” Johnson said. “The beauty of what I have now is that I control my destiny next week. If I play really, really good, I can win it.”
It shouldn’t surprise if he does.
After beginning the season with just one top 10 in 16 starts, Johnson has been one of the hottest players on Tour in recent months, recording six top 10s in his last seven events.
Said Johnson, “I didn’t need to win to know that I’m going in the right direction.”
Maybe so, but something has clearly clicked this summer.
Caddie Damon Green attributed the recent hot streak to Johnson’s ongoing work with swing coach Mike Bender. They’ve been “tightening” Johnson’s action through the hitting area, and now he has once again become the driving machine who is annually near the top of the Tour’s driving statistics.
On Monday, Johnson hit all but one fairway, turned in 3-under 32, and added three more birdies on the back nine to build a comfortable cushion.
Most impressive was his birdie on the 16th hole, where he had 179 yards to the flag, uphill, into the wind. He pulled 4-iron – normally his 210-yard club – and his second shot “never left the pin the whole way.”
Alas, the ball settled in the uneven rough just behind the green, but Johnson “chopped” down on the ball with his putter and judged it perfectly. Birdie.
The very next hole, his 6-iron tee shot flew 12 feet right of the cup, and he poured it in the middle to build a two-shot cushion he wouldn’t relinquish.
“He played one of the best rounds I’ve seen in a long time today,” said Brandt Snedeker, who was paired with Johnson in the final round.
“I’m not so sure I even understand what that is and what that means, especially considering whose era I’m playing in,” said Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion. “I’m not wanting to be a prideful guy, but I certainly take pride in that fact that I’ve done what I’ve done.”
Said Green, “He’s just got a lot of guts. He’s not afraid to win. When he gets in this situation, a lot of guys might back up. He wants to keep going, put the pedal to the metal.”
Where’s that mentality come from?
“He gets it from his daddy,” Green said. “When you’re down, he wants to stomp on you. He doesn’t want to let you up. That’s just the way he is. You can’t learn that; you just have to have that in you.”
Johnson’s macho finish stands in stark contrast to what happened to 54-hole leader Furyk. Not even a Monday finish could help the 43-year-old end nearly three years of final-round futility. The front-runner, who slept on the lead for two nights, made three bogeys in the last eight holes and finished in solo third, three shots behind.
That second-round 59? Rendered a mere footnote now, as Furyk becomes the third player to shoot a sub-60 score and not go on to win the tournament.
Worse, he has now failed to win the last six times he has been staked to at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
“I don’t know if I used them all up on Friday and knocked them all in or what,” he said, “but I just wasn’t able to get the putts to go.”
There have been so many near misses in the past two years, it’s difficult to pinpoint which was the most crippling: Tampa, Olympic, Firestone, McGladrey, Oak Hill and now this. Each time he held at least a share of the lead, and each time he walked away searching for consolation, congratulating someone else. In his career, he’s now a 9-for-23 closer.
This time, Furyk led by two shots with eight holes to play, but he three-putted from the front edge on No. 11, missed a 5-footer on 13 and bogeyed 16 after finding a fairway bunker off the tee.
It’ll also be another what-could-have-been week for Woods, who saw Conway Farms for the first time on Wednesday but climbed his way into contention after two rounds. Or so he thought, as he was pencil-whipped in the scoring trailer late Friday when a rules official determined that his ball moved, not oscillated, behind the first green.
Woods disagreed, adamantly, but it nonetheless was the third high-profile rules snafu this season. A Saturday 66 – alongside longtime nemesis Sergio Garcia – made up the two-shot penalty and moved him within four shots of the lead, but any thought of a final-round comeback was all but erased early Monday, as a wincing Woods added to his three-putt total (five for the week) and never seriously challenged. He finished in a tie for 11th, seven shots behind, but returned to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings.
Like Woods, Johnson will now head to East Lake with his sights on landing the biggest prize in golf. Johnson’s journey into the top five was a bit more circuitous, however.
He had long planned to skip the opening Barclays to be the best man in his brother’s wedding. “I had zero intentions of missing that wedding,” he said, “especially if I’m going to get along with my new sister-in-law.”
Then came Boston, where he tied for 27th, but became a story afterward when he birdied the final hole to lock up his spot on the Presidents Cup team and, as a result, knock out Simpson, with whom he was playing.
“I had zero indication as to what that meant,” said Johnson, who adopted that same mentality this week at Conway Farms, where everyone is playing for position, whether that is the top 30 or the top five.
“It’s hard to grasp the last two weeks of golf because I was trying to make that Presidents Cup team without trying to make it. I was trying to get in the top 30 this week without trying to make it.”
Is he going to try to win the FedEx Cup?
“No,” he said, “I’m not going to try to win that $10 million. I’m going to try to play good rounds of golf Thursday through Sunday.”
Then he smiled: “But I like the momentum I have for next week.”