Johnson's faith encompasses much more than the game

Zach Johnson always shares his prize money with a 10-person entourage headed by his wife.
Zach Johnson always shares his prize money with a 10-person entourage headed by his wife.PHOTO: REUTERS

Zach Johnson describes himself as just a normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

He may be Mister Normal but he can't hide from the fact that he now stands where just five golfers have gone in 150 years of history.

By winning, way back in 2007, the Masters at Augusta, and now the Open at St Andrews in Scotland, the name Zachary Harris Johnson is etched alongside the only previous winners on both courses - Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Sam Snead.

I wouldn't dream of assuming that there is a false bone in his body, or anything the least bit contrived in the humble way that Mister Johnson from Iowa accepted his prize, the old claret jug, on Monday (early Tuesday, Singapore time).

In fact, I just loved everything from his emotions to his almost un-American modesty in front of the ancestral home of the sport.

The old adage was always that in pro golf, you swing for show and putt for dough. Mister Normal from Iowa is a dab hand at the wedge shot, pitching the ball up to the flag from 60 to 80m where he might fall short.

It was hard, very hard indeed, to remember that this is not so much a man, but a mini-industry who shares his career winnings of more than US$37 million (S$50.8 million), and that's not counting endorsements, with 10 people on his payroll.

Yes, 10. They start with his wife, Kim, whom he calls the CEO of team Johnson. The woman who revived his Christian faith and persuaded him to convert from Catholicism to the Baptist Church.

The woman behind the man, mother of his three children, organiser of his charitable foundation, timekeeper, emotional rock, and coordinator of the nine other guys who have essential input into what he has just achieved.

Since he's such a generous and sharing man, he listed that team when journalists asked him to do so the morning after the achievement at St Andrews.

We saw his close bond with caddie Damon Green on the final hole. But he wanted to give thanks also to swing instructor Mike Bender, sports psychologist Morris Pickens, physical trainers Randy Myers and Troy van Biezen, agent Brad Buffoni, statistician Peter Sanders, spiritual mentor Stephen Bunn, and financial adviser Zack Fulmer.

Apparently, that team go into a pre-season conference every year to decide every microscopic detail of how Mister Normal might beat the field of world-class golfers.

That team - and the Lord. Because another thing we learnt about how Johnson held it all together on Monday's four-hole play-off against two other great golfers was to recite Psalm 27:14.

It says: "Wait on the Lord: Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart."

To each, his or her faith.

Beyond what drives Johnson when he is on the course of history, there is so much that we might thank him for.

He bust quite a few myths out there on the Old Course.

First and foremost, perhaps, is the presumption of a new ageism creeping into the journalism around golf. Even as Monday unfolded, there were stories suggesting that this was now a young man's game, and that anyone older than the 26-year-old (and injured) Rory McIlroy need not apply.

That was written in anticipation of Jordan Spieth - the 21-year-old American who was seeking a clean sweep of the Majors - winning this one.

But he failed, the young man, by one shot to get into the play-off along with Marc Leishman and Louis Oosthuizen. And they "failed" to hold nerve and sinew together during the play-off compared to 39-year-old Johnson.

How on earth did an old feller like Johnson outlast the presumed new wave headed by his young compatriot (and close friend) Spieth?

It is a rhetorical question. The pair of them flew home together by private jet, having discussed before they left, the claim that the game had moved on, not merely to a younger generation but also to "hitters".

Prior to this tournament, much was made of the fact that St Andrews is set up for the really big hitters, those who belt the ball far farther than Johnson or Spieth.

Johnson, for example, is not a big or a powerful guy. He stands just under the 1.8m mark, and weighs in at 73 kg.

His namesake, fellow American Dustin Johnson, stands 1.93m and with a body weight of 86 kg can strike the ball down the fairway way beyond Johnson.

Spieth acknowledges Dustin Johnson's crazy ability to hit the ball "miles" further down the fairway. Accordingly, he trusts in his skills to work the course, the way that Zach Johnson must.

It isn't actually anything new. The old adage was always that in pro golf, you swing for show and putt for dough. Mister Normal from Iowa is a dab hand at the wedge shot, pitching the ball up to the flag from 60 to 80m where he might fall short.

The records, for what they are worth, rank Zach Johnson the 164th longest driver off the tee. He is also not, quite, the most magical putter out there.

But he mixes his short and his long game, he practises those wedge shots until the light fades. He puts it all together in a way that makes Green, his caddie, say: "My little bulldog gets on your trouser leg and won't give up until he gets some flesh. My man's got the biggest pair out there."

That perseverance has panned the eras of the fading Woods and the arrival of the McIlroy-Spieth generation.

Among the confetti of figures this week, maybe the most surprising is that more than 3,000 days - near enough to a decade - passed between Zach Johnson winning the Masters and the Open.

His children were born in that span. His life changed. But the magnitude of his aim never wavered. Just a normal son of a chiropractor in little old Iowa?

Pull the other leg, Mr Johnson.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline 'Johnson's faith encompasses much more than the game'. Print Edition | Subscribe