Zach steals Jordan's summer thunder

By Mike Hlas
Published on
Zach steals Jordan's summer thunder

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- It was a two-week golf saga that went from Cedar Rapids to the Quad Cities to Scotland to Jacksonville, Fla.

It might have been the stuff of a documentary or book had it not lacked bitter conflict or a principal character with a dark side.

The focal point for nearly all of it was Jordan Spieth, the winner of this year's Masters and U.S. Open. His story before and during the Open Championship was the one that dwarfed the tournament. Could the 21-year-old claim the third trophy in his sport's Grand Slam and head to Wisconsin next month a PGA Championship win from becoming the first player in golf's modern era to complete that superfecta?

Yet, after the last blast of wind had blown and the final raindrop had fallen at the tourney at storied St. Andrews, the spotlight had shifted to Zach Johnson.

Video: Johnson wins Open Championship, Spieth just misses playoff 

At 39, he had already been identified as a hugely successful PGA Tour pro. But outside of Ryder Cup appearances, he hadn't been in the global spotlight since winning the Masters in 2007.

Johnson, the Cedar Rapids native, was inextricably linked with Spieth for two weeks. Spieth was among the pros who participated in the July 6 Zach Johnson Foundation Classic in Cedar Rapids, helping raised about $835,000 for the foundation's Kids on Course program.

Spieth was bombarded with autograph and photo requests that day at Elmcrest Country Club on the heels of his planetary fame. But it was his idea to make a repeat appearance at the event, knowing he'd spend the day besieged by spectators.

"I truly didn't have to ask or urge him to play," Johnson said before the event. "This was all just after the Masters. He has stayed committed since. He mentioned how much fun he had last year and cannot wait to come back to Iowa."

The two then went 100 miles east to TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill., for the Tour's John Deere Classic. This may have been the first year in the last decade in which the biggest gate attraction there was someone other than Johnson.

Spieth rallied to get into a playoff with Tom Gillis, and won on the second hole of sudden-death. Johnson missed being in that playoff by inches. His 15-foot birdie attempt at No. 18 slid over an edge of the cup.

"It was a perfect putt," Johnson said.

Spieth's win -- along with some people suggesting that a player pursuing the Grand Slam would bypass the John Deere to arrive at Scotland earlier to prepare for the Open Championship -- heightened attention on him.

Spieth and Johnson were among the 19 Tour pros who traveled to Scotland together on the Deere's chartered jet.

But it was someone other than Spieth who played the Deere and was the champion after Monday's final round and 4-hole playoff at the British. That, of course, was Johnson.

Related: Spieth takes swig from Johnson's Claret Jug

After his final round at the Deere, Johnson waited for Spieth signed his scorecard, then encouraged him before Spieth returned to the course for the playoff. Spieth returned the gesture eight days later at St. Andrews. He was at the 18th green to offer a hug for Johnson after his triumph.

"Very proud of a role model and friend of mine @ZachJohnsonPGA," Spieth tweeted.

At his press conference Monday, Johnson said this about Spieth:

"He said congratulations and that he was proud. ... He is a really good friend of mine."

Along with several other Tour pros including major-winners Jason Dufner and Webb Simpson, Johnson and Spieth then shared a chartered jet from Scotland to Jacksonville.

Defying the superstition that athletes don't touch trophies until they have won them, Spieth drank from Johnson's Claret Jug on that flight. But the jug will be in Johnson's possession until he returns it Scotland next July as the defending champion.

Spieth remains the most-compelling current story in golf, and deservedly so. But Johnson lifted some of that bright light from his friend for a week. He made the rounds on national radio sports talk shows, and had many golf media people upgrading their opinions of his career.

Related: Johnson makes clutch birdie on No. 18 on Monday at Open Championship

"We've put enough underachievers in the World Golf Hall of Fame," wrote Jim McCabe of Golfweek magazine. "How about some love for an all-world overachiever, and that term is used with the utmost respect."

Johnson never sounds overly concerned about the accolades of others or their assessment of his place in golf's hierarchy.

A day after he was back home in St. Simons Island, Ga., Johnson and his Claret Jug went to the AJGA Davis Love III Junior Open there Wednesday. He posed for photos with the young players.

Love will captain the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup team. Given his body of work, and the respect he is given by many younger Tour pros like Spieth, Ryder Cup veteran Johnson could be a captain candidate sometime in the next decade.

But that's several years down the line. Johnson, the No. 12 player in the World Golf Rankings, showed at St. Andrews that his own game is as good as ever.

It's unlikely you'll find a fellow Tour pro who would rule out Johnson bagging another major before his career winds down.

This article was written by Mike Hlas from The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.