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Motivated by loss, Z. Johnson (66) leads Open

Zach Johnson
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GULLANE, Scotland – Get on with it.

It is a distinctly English point of view but fits the situation here in Scotland, and Zach Johnson has embraced the philosophy, to say nothing of the breezy and bouncy way of playing the game on ancient links.

Less than four days ago, Johnson endured a painful first in his career, a playoff loss at an event that was his for the taking.

Johnson finished 72 holes at TPC Deere Run tied with eventual champion Jordan Spieth and David Hearn at 19 under but couldn’t convert a birdie putt in the playoff. He spent the better part of the next seven hours stewing about what could have been.

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“It disturbed him,” said Damon Green, Johnson’s longtime caddie. “The whole flight over, he was bothered by it because he’d never lost a playoff.”

Green told his man not to dwell on the overtime loss and consider the Open Championship his reason to move on. By the time the charter flight to Scotland had landed Johnson had turned the page.

He eschewed jetlag and headed straight to Muirfield for a nine-hole practice round on Monday and a new beginning. By the time he’d rounded the East Lothian links in 66 strokes on Thursday for the early clubhouse lead the John Deere seemed like a lifetime ago, or so Johnson would have one believe.

“Well, I had forgotten about it until you just mentioned it,” said Johnson, his tongue firmly planted in cheek.

The truth is, losses like the Deere don’t go away, and no one knows that better than Johnson. The former mini-tour player has carved out a stellar career on the back of disappointment.

From humble beginnings have come great things. Nine PGA Tour wins, including the 2007 Masters, and a regular spot on America’s cup teams stand as a testament to a player who is something of a throwback to an earlier time.

He doesn’t hit the ball as far as most in the big leagues and his Midwestern sensibilities have kept him clear of the spotlight, but when things are darkest Johnson is at his best – be it at a major championship or a charter flight with too much free time.

“You can be depressed for a day,” said Dr. Morris Pickens, Johnson’s sports psychologist who is with the front-runner this week in Scotland. “But there are worse things in life than losing a playoff. Just do the same thing you did last week.”

Message received.

Johnson was one of three players to go out in 31 on Day 1 and, unlike the other quick starters, he maintained that advantage on an increasingly difficult closing loop to finish at 5 under – the ghosts of TPC Deere Run blown clear into the Firth of Forth by a warm wind.

“This game demands resilience,” Johnson said when asked about the Deere heartbreak. “I felt great about last week. What I embraced is that I played great. The bottom line is I know I can play on these golf courses and I love them.”

Johnson proved that last year at Lytham, when he rode a wild week (65-74-66-75) to his first top-10 finish (T-9) at golf’s oldest championship.

That Muirfield is playing perfectly this week for the fairways-and-greens specialist also helped Johnson move on. A dry and hot spring has resulted in a brown and bouncy test that favors precision over power.

That a “quality shot” can end up 30 feet from a pin also favors Johnson, one of the Tour’s best putters.

“Lag putting,” Johnson said when asked his strengths on Thursday.

As Muirfield became more crusty with each gust on Day 1, Johnson reverted to a unique way of reading greens. “You have to pay attention to the color,” he figured.

If a putt was along one of the greener patches, for example, you could be more aggressive, but if the grass had turned a brownish hue it was best to putt defensively.

It almost reminded one of Augusta National in 2007, when the home of the Masters was similarly speedy and Johnson played every par 5 in three shots on his way to a green jacket.

It also helps that Johnson has a particularly attentive roommate this week. When Stewart Cink won the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry he was more than a year removed from his last victory and dealing with his own demons.

“He is one of my very best friends,” Johnson said of Cink, who are sharing a house just down the coast in North Berwick. “It just so happens he’s won the claret jug.”

Cink knows a thing or two about resilience, and that might be the best club in Johnson’s bag this week. On this the English have it right, just get on with it.