Masters champion improved by degrees

U.s. Open

June 14, 2007|By RICK MAESE

OAKMONT, Pa. - - Since World War II, only four men have won the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year - Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan. This week, Zach Johnson will try to add his name to that list.

To get an idea of how silly that would've sounded not long ago, you've just got to talk with Jamie Bermel. He's the guy who recruited Johnson to the golf team at Drake University. He's the guy who knew that not only was Johnson not the best golfer on his college team, but he also wasn't even the best on his high school team.

And Bermel's the guy who had to bite his tongue when Johnson took his degree in business and marketing into Bermel's office and said he instead wanted to play professional golf.

"I just about choked on my drink," says Bermel, now the men's coach at Colorado State. "He was the two or three guy on our team, and he still thought he could make it. He was so determined."

And here Johnson is, a green jacket hanging in his closet and one of the favorites at the U.S. Open, which begins today at the Oakmont Country Club. This is a player whose Wikipedia entry wouldn't have filled the back of a business card before his Masters win, and somehow this week he has as good a chance at the Open as heavyweights such as Phil Mickelson and Woods, even though he carries a remarkably different golf pedigree.

Woods won the Junior World Golf Championships six times and was the three-time U.S. Junior Amateur champion. Mickelson won three NCAA titles and was the first left-hander to win the U.S. Amateur Championship. Mickelson even won a PGA event as an amateur.

And Johnson, this quiet Midwesterner with an upbringing ripped from a 1950s black-and-white television set, a player who had just one college scholarship to consider? Well, he did manage to win the Cedar Rapids Rotary Pribyl Junior Boys Amateur Golf Tournament once, so that's something.

"Zach always seemed to have the fundamentals, but who would have thought he'd come this far?" says Johnson's father, Dave. "He physically was a late bloomer. I'm 6-3, weigh 195. I started high school 5-foot, 95 pounds, as did Zach. He probably weighed about 125 pounds when he graduated high school. It just took him awhile to catch up with everyone else."

Larry Gladson is the head pro at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids. He began teaching Johnson when the golfer was just 10. Johnson was smaller than most, and his tee shots were often a wedge shot behind the other kids'. Though he was a steady player, no one fathomed Johnson's name would someday top leader boards at a major.

"You always hear him saying that he's a typical kid from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and that's the only way I know to describe him," Gladson says. "He was your average junior golfer, very polite, good strong family background. Just like a lot of the kids around here."

When his son turned pro, Dave Johnson says he "had some concerns," but both parents remained supportive. "We knew he'd be at the bottom, sleeping in Motel 6s, sharing rooms with guys and carpooling," says the elder Johnson, a chiropractor in Cedar Rapids. "We knew it would be a long road. But once he got going, he just never stopped."

Zach Johnson cut his teeth on the defunct Prairie Golf Tour, and Bermel, the former Drake coach, still remembers Johnson returning to Iowa his second summer as a pro.

"I asked him, `Zach, how long are you going to do this?'" Bermel says. "He told me, `When I stop improving, I'll give it up.'"

Week to week and year to year, Johnson says he's noticed the improvement, which is why when the U.S. Open tees off this morning, he's in better position than most to handle Oakmont. Like every year, the U.S. Open course has been cut like a carnival thrill ride. The rough swallows your spikes and the uneven greens are cut smooth as marble.

The last players left standing Sunday will be survivors as much as anything, as the course traditionally favors the steadiest players, those who avoid trouble. While Johnson is ranked No. 154 on driving distance, he's fourth in accuracy. (For comparison, Woods and Mickelson are both good drivers but are Nos. 163 and 153, respectively, in accuracy.)

Johnson's always been a player who plays the fairway, hits greens and putts consistently. It's exactly what's required at a U.S. Open course, and it's the exact low-risk strategy that already paid off for Johnson at the Masters.

"I think my preparation for this week, it's very much in line with Augusta," Johnson says.

He hopes the results are similar, too. Johnson hasn't competed since winning the AT&T Classic four weeks ago. After playing a lifetime in anonymity, the small kid who could've gotten lost in the weeds of the Midwest - the Tiger of Iowa - is playing as big as anyone in the field.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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