Creature of Habit

By Rex HoggardMay 13, 2009, 4:00 pm
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Zach Johnson is not a superstitious sort. He doesnt wear the same underwear if he has an extended under-par streak going. His world doesnt go sideways if he loses that lucky coin he used to mark his golf ball in 2007 at Augusta National and there is no pre-round meal that must be adhered to.
He is, however, a creature of habit. And when his world got out of position two Sundays ago, the competitive clock for the kid form Cedar Rapids, Iowa, never recovered.
The trouble started long before Johnson arrived at Quail Hollow, where he was staked to a two-shot lead over the likes of Tiger Woods and Lucas Glover. As if that one-two combination in the rearview mirror wasnt stressful enough.
The driver Johnson hired to wheel his RV back to Georgia was two hours early and somehow during the rushed explanation, the keys to the mobile-Johnson castle became locked inside the bus.
As a result Johnson arrived at Quail Hollow 30 minutes later than planned. Now, the runtime of your average sitcom may not seem like much to your generic Monday morning quarterback, but to Johnson, and most other Tour pros, that time is crucial.
I was in front of myself all day, Johnson said, and No. 2 (where he made a triple bogey-6) was a shock to my system.
After that his plight snowballed, with a bogey at the third and a closing 76 that dropped him into a tie for 11th. A potent cocktail of allergies and stress combined to upend his rhythm and induce a severe headache. Johnson said he was so out of sorts it didnt occur to him to take aspirin to ease the pain. That was so stupid, he sighed.
For those of us whose pre-round routine normally includes hurriedly putting on your golf shoes in the parking lot and an 11:10 a.m. sprint to the first tee for an 11 a.m. tee time, Johnsons explanation may sound, well, stupid. But know this about Zach Johnson. He doesnt make excuses and he doesnt confuse denial for constructive criticism.
In the days after his Quail Hollow collapse Team Zach ' which includes caddie Damon Green, sports psychologist Dr. Morris Pickens, swing coach Mike Bender and manager Brad Buffoni with SFX ' huddled to figure out what went wrong and, more importantly, how to keep it from happening again.
Its not superstition, its just a fact. If he gets rushed he doesnt play too good, Pickens said. One of his key thoughts on the golf course is tempo, tempo, tempo. Any time you get rushed things become more magnified and can have an emotional/physical impact on you.
Last Saturday, within the plush confines of the TPC Sawgrass mens grill, Johnson recapped his rushed morning in Charlotte, N.C., with a detached precision that was void of emotion. For a player whose routine may be the most important club in his bag ' after, perhaps, that prolific putter ' Sunday at Quail Hollow was the imperfect storm, but a storm worth studying.
I didnt dwell on it and thats a good thing, Johnson said. It was kind of an anomaly. Its golf. Im going to learn from it.
What he learned is that his detailed pre-round routine is non-negotiable. With clinical precision, Johnson can run through his game-day ritual: arrive at the golf course two hours before his tee time, 30 minutes of stretching and working out, 20 minutes to eat, 10 minutes of putting on the practice green and chipping, 30 minutes hitting golf balls on the range, 10 more minutes on the putting green and its off to the first tee.
Of all the things Johnson does well '10 footers for par, fairways, greens, trophy presentations ' adjusting on the fly may not be one of his strengths.
Thats been a recurring theme with Zach. I remember two years ago at Southern Hills (PGA Championship) it seemed like Damon (Green) was always on him to get to the tee, get to the tee, Pickens said. I dont think he got off to a really good start. Its like, Hey man, you dont need to be rushing to the tee. Hes needs a little bit more time.
Johnson is hardly the only Tour type with a routine and, like golf swings, each pre-round is different depending on the player. Hes also hardly the first player to let a slightly off pre-game impact his play.
I have another player who likes to only have himself and his caddie around when hes warming up, Pickens said. I was around some and his instructor was around, but when he was warming up it became too complicated and too many people. We noticed he wasnt playing real good and taking a while getting into the round. Turned out he was uncomfortable with the set up but didnt want to say anything. It was basically throwing off his timing. Thats how sensitive they are.
Hard to think of Johnson, the salt-of-the-earth Midwestern who grinded out a Masters jacket on the most demanding of Sundays, as the sensitive type, but when it comes to game days these guys are all about routine.
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